“She looks stressed,” chortle two teenage skaters as a woman in a romper marches past them in a near miss – her face as stormy as her outfit is summery. Knowing Lucy as I now do, I find it easy to see why. Just an hour ago, she was cleaning tables at a lively bar on the Southbank. Now she’s acting as the mediator between privately-educated “bad man” puppet-master Ed Temple, and Danny, the short-fused lad on a mission to escape his employer’s web. Plus, poor Lucy is being followed by four newly-appointed private detectives, who for some reason – maybe it’s their clear inexperience, inconsistent backstory or inability to keep straight faces – she can’t quite bring herself to trust.
In an immersive production that boasts 9 million extras as three teams of four search the city for one man, the skater boys serve as a reminder of the thin, permeable border between reality and performance. In our heads, we are following Lucy in the hope that she will bring us closer to Danny. Without her, the story can’t go on. Meanwhile, to the outsider, we are four uncertain looking individuals, following a woman who is clearly distressed. There’s a clear nervous energy powering our reluctant guide, as she checks around for security cameras and stalkers – and there’s no question, whether in fantasy or reality, that we’re exploiting this woman to get the knowledge we need.
And so, while The Immersive Ensemble’s first offering is no doubt a thrill-seeking experience in all its meticulous planning and ambitious access – big buildings! iconic architecture! a dress code! secret meeting points! covert conversations! passwords! a speed boat! – the beating heart of the drama pounds most vigorously through those moments that cannot be anticipated by designer or player. The Drop Off pushes us to question our city, and how we move around it, challenging our response to the children standing on the left of the escalator, the doormen at exclusive bars who do not expect us to sprint away, the plain-clothed police officers with questions to ask – or worse! – the indifferent fellow passengers who fail to raise an eyebrow as London’s underground swells up into a jovial Friday night.
But time is tight. We’ve got no more than 15 minutes to coax a client into giving us the information we need. The theatrical potential is delicious; looking out over my city from the 32nd floor, I’m in a conceptual destination as well known and distant as Brick’s porch or Estragon and Vladimir’s tree. The glass of wine I’m holding functions as little more than a prop. As the client toasts our friendship and our trust, his grip on my shoulder is so firm I can barely bring the glass to my mouth, and when my eyes lock firmly into his, I am coerced into a reversal of my typical engagement with performance: my body is in this space, but my mind is not. My eyes are on set, but they are not trying to spot my house under London’s skyline, my voice has been invited into the performance, but I’m not to make any puns. I am given more involvement, and the illusion of control. I am a secret agent with no agency.
And to some degree, this tempo is necessary. If, when she marched us past the shadowy, graffiti-strewn entrance to The Vaults – a regular stomping ground for immersive theatre fans like myself and at least one other member of my party – Lucy had allowed us to question ‘this is not the place for people like us’, our character would be blown and the experience punctured. But when the adventure took us to exclusive destinations, it became over stimulating, overblown – like we were playing out an advert for an experience, rather than an experience in its own right. Later, when our three teams clotted into a group of twelve, the need for subtlety vanished, and the decision to put our trust in one of the characters became clouded and unnecessary – a low priority next to the concluding round of drinks.
While The Drop Off’s USP is that it’s undoubtedly the “most exclusive immersive show in London”, this experience engages most vividly when it calls for us to act inconspicuously in situations where we would already blend right in. Forget the 35 mph boat rides, wines with a view, those references to Harrow and other journeys towards great and flashy drama, The Drop Off is most memorable when it requires that same degree of drama and reflection to come closer to that London life we were already living.