Last week, the extremely troubled immersive theatre show The Wolf of Wall Street closed. The show’s official Twitter at one point declared it was being run out of town by the FBI, but the more prosaic truth is bad press, bad word-of-mouth and venue problems.
Thus departs arguably the most audacious show from 2019’s bumper roster of immersive productions, which also includes zombie shooter Variant 31 (current status: dead), The War of the Worlds (chugging away solidly) and Mamma Mia! The Party (basically a licence to print money).
Hysterically flexible descriptor as it is, ‘immersive theatre’ is very much not a new thing. But I don’t think it’s ever been so ubiquitous in London, or so mainstream.
A decade or so ago, the genre’s leading lights Punchdrunk and DreamThinkSpeak were from the left of the spectrum artistically. Now, Punchdrunk’s madly ambitious The Drowned Man has been overtaken as the longest-running immersive show in the UK by The Guild of Misrule’s The Great Gatsby. The altogether more modest evening exists more as an excuse to dress up 1920s style and sink a few old fashioneds, than it does to offer any sort of meaningful sense you have been transported into the world of Fitzgerald’s novel.
The bottom line, I think, is that for the more successful shows, Punchdrunk’s madly ambitious vistas are much less influential than Secret Cinema, which creates visually stunning, lightly interactive shows as a lavish sideshow to screenings of classic films.
Saying these shows have lowered the bar feels pejorative – but the fact is they’ve offered a blueprint for a mode of immersive theatre that a lot of people enjoy, and have much lower stakes both financially and artistically than the conjuring up of an entire original world.
If every playwright had to be Shakespeare or every composer Sondheim, there wouldn’t be many plays or musicals. It’s the same with immersive theatre. Gatsby, The War of the Worlds and Mamma Mia! The Party are undemanding extensions of pre-existing franchises and they’ve done very well.
This isn’t to say these new shows are all a licence to print money. The immersive Wolf of Wall Street ran into problems with its site, which delayed its opening for over a month (a huge challenge for larger immersive shows is that they effectively need to build a new venue).
But judging on its reception when it did open, the project found a limit to the Gatsby formula: The Wolf of Wall Street is a byword for the sort of behaviour that could never be legally replicated by an audience, and the resultant show ultimately came across as directionless and underpowered.
The most ambitious show and the one with the most ignominious collapse was Variant 31. A full-bore zombie shoot ’em up heavily beholden to video game zappers, it never featured all the stuff it promised it would eventually include (bars, a daytime version for younger audiences). After months of delays it opened to tepid reviews, and was put on hiatus last year, notionally, to fix its fiddly tech, but the project seems to have subsequently fallen apart amid accusations of safety failings and unpaid wages.
Perhaps the main lesson to learn: immersive theatre is hard and expensive, something an increasing number of practitioners are finding out as they try to make populist, middlebrow examples of a genre that had hitherto been restricted to the artier side of the theatre spectrum. The Great Gatsby shows the potential rewards on offer if you find a balance between logistical feasibility and meaningful audience appeal. The Wolf of Wall Street shows what happens if you don’t.
Whether 2019’s glut of shows proves to be a high watermark in volume for immersive shows or simply the start of the deluge remains to be seen. Already 2020 has an immersive Doctor Who show and – yikes – an immersive Human Traffic adaptation lined up: it doesn’t look like things are going to slack off any time soon.
Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London and a regular contributor to The Stage. Read more of his articles at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski