‘You’re going to get a new name,’ two smiling, black-robed performers tell me, as they encourage me to pick words out of two little baskets on a table in the reception area of Morley College in Lambeth. Around me, a small crowd of audience members is forming, marked by name tags bearing phrases like ‘Mouse Toilet’, ‘Blood Army’, and ‘Road Queen’. We’re about to embark on an hour-long ‘immersive theatre’ production presented by ImmerCity as part of the sprawling Vault Festival. It gradually becomes clear that we are about to be inducted into some sort of anti-technology cult, known as the Night Delvers, who have recently experienced some sort of traumatic event in relation to their leader, and some potentially juicy double-crossing begins to unfold.
The promise of anonymity, or the ability to be an anonymous voyeur or participant, is one way to get audience members to limber up for the night ahead and commit to the experience. Night Delving promises this anonymity from the start and many audience members, visibly delighted by their quirky new names, are warming up to the show. What happens after, unfortunately, is the anti-climactic lack of a payoff.
Night Delving was one of three concepts shortlisted for ImmerCity’s The Alchemical Door platform, which it calls ‘an immersive new writing event that explores ideas which don’t rely on complex or expensive set design’. It’s a nice counterpoint, in theory, to the very glossy but also very commercial and expensive sheen that immersive theatre has gained over the past few years. Not having expensive set design, however, doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t consider the set at all, which felt very much the case in this instance. The Morley College Studio is the only space the production takes place in, but the three performer-facilitators seem unconfident in their use of the space and in how to shepherd the audience members in their charge so that everyone is aware of what is going on.
The 20-plus audience members are broken up into three groups, and my companion in another group misses out on enormous plot points because bits of information are communicated to some groups but not to others (likely due to a lack of time). In certain instances, participants are allowed some time to piece the scattered evidence together, but most of the time this isn’t the case.
We are all meant to be given robes, but the performers run out and ignore an audience member on the fringes of the crowd who asks, plaintively: ‘So… am I going to get a robe?’ Some of the headsets for an aural portion of the show are not working; one participant is left desperately fiddling around with a mass of wires without any help. It doesn’t help that the production is full of deeply unsatisfying red herrings, where audience members are asked to do various tasks that reap no returns later or that do not propel the plot forward. Without a sturdy structure, one might at least rely on strong character work so that audience members have figures to empathise or identify with, but the characters are thinly sketched and I found that I hadn’t invested any emotional stakes in their well-being or outcome.
The premise of the show is a very interesting one, with the potential to knit together strands about our reliance on technology or the desire to align ourselves with groups that support the urge to disconnect – and who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? But it’s in the execution of the experience and how audience members are guided that Night Delving falls short. It is redeemed, perhaps, by the fact that the audience demographic that the ‘immersive theatre’ tagline draws tends to be an experienced, risk-taking one willing to take a chance on experimental shows. The show was deeply enlivened by rogue audience members who refused to follow rules and generated plenty of humour through their decisions, which left me to puzzle over whether Night Delving had been successful or not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the show was unevenly executed – as long as audience members had fun? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
Night Delving is on as part of Vaults Festival 2017. Click here for more details.