Four months after its planned opening, Space 18 – a 42,000sq ft immersive venue in the heart of London’s Theatreland – is about to open its first show Variant 31. Fergus Morgan speaks to its creator Dalton Dale about turning a London office block into a zombie-horror attraction
Until recently, 39-41 New Oxford Street was an unassuming, faintly dilapidated building at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, just around the corner from Motown the Musical. No longer: inside, the complex has been converted into a five-story, 200-room, 42,000 sq ft immersive venue in what is easily the biggest venture of its kind ever undertaken in the UK.
Space 18, as the venue will be known, will open in September with its first show Variant 31, a zombie horror-themed interactive experience that, according to its creator Dalton Dale, is “a combination of immersive theatre, e-sports, and live video game” that will rival Madame Tussauds as a tourist attraction.
It was originally planned to open in May, but issues with the technology held things up for several months. “The show has all this custom-built technology, and we ran into some glitches with it. So we decided to take a pause, go back to the drawing board and make sure the tech could live up to what we wanted it to be.”
He continues: “It wasn’t too much of a financial hit because we had a humongous contingency, and we’d negotiated some really good rates. It’s all running smoothly now. There was a moment when I was concerned it wouldn’t be, but it just took some out-of-the-box thinking and a few months of tweaking.”
Hailing from North Carolina, Dale made his name first as a make-up artist working on the hit TV series The Walking Dead, then as the brains behind a string of horror houses, escape rooms and immersive experiences in New York.
“Growing up, I didn’t ask for toys, I asked for costumes, stage lights, fog machines and flash boxes,” he says. “I founded my company, Big Dreamer Productions, when I was 10, and I’ve been producing shows ever since.”
In 2017, thanks to a particularly successful haunted house attraction in Harlem the previous year, Dale managed to fulfil his lifelong dream of moving to London. Upon arrival, he immediately started seeking out buildings within which he could create his first immersive experience in Britain.
“I went through venue after venue and nothing worked,” he says. “One was an old prison in Clerkenwell. One was a warehouse in King’s Cross. One was an old hotel near the Barbican. They all fell through, for various reasons, and I thought I’d never find somewhere.”
Eventually, though, thanks to a fortuitous connection through an estate agent, and after a seven-month negotiation period, Dale secured the lease for seven unoccupied, adjacent buildings on New Oxford Street in the West End, one of which used to house legendary nightclub The End, and set about adapting them as an immersive venue.
The conversion from abandoned building to new immersive venue involves several different teams – structural engineers, construction crews, debris removal men, set builders, set decorators – all working at once. The key to converting buildings, says Dalton, is working with what is already there.
“It’s about using the existing walls and all the strange, unique architecture,” he says. “When we took over what will be the box office, it was a souvenir shop. We were taking down shelves and accidentally discovered a ceiling 4 ft above the dropped ceiling that was cracked and crumbling. We found these gorgeous, ornate columns as well.”
“In the end, we gutted the entire room, and exposed a hundred-year-old building that is as zombified as you could want,” he continues. “We just can’t fake that. We have some great scenic designers and painters, but you can’t fake what is already there.”
Dale’s set designer, Tim McQuillen-Wright, worked on Secret Cinema’s immersive screenings of Moulin Rouge! and 28 Days Later.
“I have the vision, but I can’t draw to save my life,” says Dale. “So I word-diarrhoea to Tim and he creates and sketches everything, and then it’s just a case of going through, room by room, texturing the walls, painting everything, and adding things. We’ve just put in all the doorways to link the buildings together. Thankfully we didn’t have to push through any structural walls.”
Dale estimates the whole project will cost about £2.5 million – once the delay to development has been factored in – and employ 500 people. In terms of scale, that is far higher than any comparable projects undertaken in the UK before. There is, according to Dale, no expense spared.
“Our costumes are built by the company that built the Iron Man suit in LA,” he says. “Our make-up designer just finished production on the new Star Wars film. Everything about this show is custom, even the music. We have a composer that’s writing the entire score. It’s as Hollywood as it gets, through and through. That’s the quality I want.”
But the most expensive element of it all is not the construction work, or the design, or the marketing (on which Dale is spending £200,000). It’s the technology Dale has, eventually, developed: participants will wear sophisticated health monitors that are affected by creatures and substances spread throughout the show.
“I can’t say the name of the company, or how much it cost,” he says. “Those are trade secrets. But it’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds, and months and months of development. It involves hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of computers as well. CAT-5 networks, servers, CPUs, all of it state-of-the-art.”
The health monitors, Dale explains, are just one element of an experience that he claims will outstrip any immersive show seen before. Participants will also be armed with replica 9mm handguns (with realistic recoil and noise) and headsets. 700 touchpads – technology adapted from that used to open doors in large hotels – will track participants’ scores, which can be checked live online.
Variant 31 is a 90-minute, free-form adventure that will see audiences explore 200 different rooms (plus a slide, a lift and an inter-building bridge) and encounter a huge range of challenges designed to scare them out of their wits.
Details on what audience members can expect are being closely guarded, but two scenarios Dale describes – one called the Hellevator, another called the Woman With Pearls – sound utterly terrifying. Participants will be able to calm down at one of seven themed bars located throughout the experience, and if they don’t want to be fully immersed, they don’t have to be.
“For people that don’t want the full-on scary adventure, we sell something called a no-touch chicken ticket,” explains Dale. “It tells the cast not to touch you, so you can go with your mates and watch them have the absolute shit scared out of them, while you’re almost invisible.”
“Shows like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, shows that really brought the word immersive into the mainstream – I don’t think they’re immersive at all. You have agency to explore, but the cast almost entirely ignores you, and it drives me insane.”
Dale concludes: “All my experiences put the audience members in the middle of the action. That’s what this will be like. The only way to stop a creature getting close to you and infecting you is to aim your gun at their face and shoot them in the head. And if you hit them in the shoulder, they’re going to keep coming at you. We’re full contact, so they are going to grab you. Your only recourse is to kill them.”
Variant 31 runs from September 1 to December 31. Go to variant31.com for further information