For King and Country, The Colab Factory

by guest critic Meredith Jones Russell

The recent boom in so-called immersive theatre has seen a whole range of shows bill themselves using the term, when in reality their approach is anything but. However, it can’t be said that For King and Country is anything other than a genuinely immersive experience.

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Mendoza, Southwark Playhouse

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by guest critic Nastazja Somers

A Shakespeare expert, friend of mine always says, “I love Shakespeare but I hate watching it, most of the time it bores me”. And isn’t it the truth? I get to see a lot of the Bard’s plays and most of the time I leave theatres feeling uninspired and craving a surprise. I yearn for Shakespeare productions that will move audiences whilst placing them in a centre a collective experience.

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Counting Sheep, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Just over two years ago, a revolution in Kiev ushered in the downfall of the Ukranian government. Protests against the government’s refusal to sign pro-EU legislation lasting months had several violent outbursts that saw hundred of people injured and 780 killed. Toronto-based Ukrainian musician Marichka Kudriavtseva, in Kiev for work at the time, joined the protesters where she met Mark Marczyk, also based in Canada.

When the two returned from the Ukraine, they teamed up with Marczyk’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra to create Counting Sheep, an immersive “guerrilla folk opera”. A celebration of solidarity and the power of a collective voice, it also mourns those who died in the protests. Told from the perspective of the protesters, little is shared from the other side – but this rallying performance is fitting homage to not just the Ukrainian protesters, but those fighting government tyranny around the world.

Some audience sit around a huge table, whilst others sit on the sides of the space and still others up in a balcony. Klezmer or folk music is playing as the audience enters; there is a convivial atmosphere as the show formally starts. This is a party, or a wedding, or some other huge gathering, until the three screens display news reports of riots and police enter. The tone abruptly shifts, and the world that has been established is dismantled. It’s a wonderful, unsettling surprise.

The space is consistently reformed and redrawn using movement, and the audience is physically moved in the wake of the protesters’ gains and losses. They are willing and unquestioning, the sheep of the title. Though the numbers here obviously pale to those at the actual protest, incorporating the audience in acts such a building barricades and lobbing bricks at police fosters unity from disparate dozens. There is a hint of the solidarity and aggression found in protests, and joy and celebration from the audience who are keen to play. Being served food is also an important enabler that solidifies the unity the show aims to create.

Counting Sheep is hugely effective in its emotional manipulation, and also it’s storytelling through music, movement and projections. Choosing sheep as a metaphor is a curious choice, though. The benign but rather dumb livestock aren’t known for thinking for themselves and are susceptible to herding – otherwise, they wander around unproductively, getting lost and eaten by predators. Whilst the performers are the herders here, they are also in sheep masks, unempowered. Who then are the herders? The government? Unseen forces of political and social unrest? Whatever it is, us human beings are hugely susceptible to it when motivated enough, even if the metaphor isn’t totally clear.

Though sung completely in Ukrainian, there is a clear storyline conveyed through projections and movement. There is little nuance in this piece, but it a playground for the sweeping emotions of popular theatre. It provides at least a hint of the experience that the Ukrainian protesters endured, and powerfully unites the audience through the humanity of collective experience for a common goal. An excellent piece of theatre.

Counting Sheep runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Cargo, Arcola Theatre

Cargo at the Arcola Theatre, Milly Thomas, Jack Gouldbourne and Debbie Korley,  Photo by Mark Douet

Civil war is raging in the formerly united, newly named Kingdom. Loyalists and rebels have divided up the charred, frightened remains. Religious fundamentalism and capital punishment are the law of the land. There are furtive rumours of a better life across the channel, and there are regular passages to Calais. Money can buy passports, or if you don’t have any of that, there are people who will help you stow away as Cargo that you can pay later. But safety isn’t a given once you’re on board. The holds of these ships are dark and full of desperate people with shady pasts and their own agendas, and a lot can happen in an 80-minute crossing. Tess Berry-Hart’s script is as much a thriller as it is rousing political theatre, and the diverse cast of four effectively capture a snapshot of the population effected by this tragedy. Though the story is overly convoluted by truths and lies, Cargo provides a timely reminder, like other refugee-themed work at the moment, that we are all human beings in need of a safe and secure life.

Joey (Millie Thomas) is there with her younger brother Iz (Jack Gouldbourne). They’re from the loyalist-controlled docks and have lost everything. Joey’s shrewd and resourceful, Iz is an optimistic innocent who dreams of being a waiter and is the only genuinely nice person on board. Gouldbourne is totally believable as the tween who sees the good in everyone, and is nicely balanced by Thomas’ maternal defensiveness. They meet Sarah (Debbie Korley), an elusive northerner played with brilliant intensity. John Schwab is the slippery American Kayffe, who’s ever-changing biography hides horrific experiences. Berry-Hart never fully reveals the objective truths of the world around them, which is frustrating but leaves plenty to the imagination. The fates of these people are a great unknown in a world where desperation forces people to solely look out for themselves.

Tense from the onset from fear of discovery, anxiety builds quickly though there’s little to do except wait to arrive. These characters have seen so many horrors that relaxing is impossible and anyone could be the enemy. The script is conversational, yet guarded, as the characters attempt to get to know each other. Barry-Hart incorporates believable conflict into the narrative that director David Mercatali approaches with varying pace. The unresolved ending is unsatisfying, but no doubt realistic.

The design team Max Dorey (set), Christopher Nairne (lighting) and Max Pappenheim (sound) create an immersive environment of simple pallets and packaging. The boat is a constant aural presence and the seating, whilst as uncomfortable as the play’s circumstances, is probably pretty accurate. The design exquisitely works together with Mercatali to destabilise the audience; married with the script’s uncertainties it is a most unsettling effect.

Cargo could still use some refining and clarity in order to allow the audience to take in the experience without focusing on following the veracity of the character’s experiences, especially towards the end. Despite this small issue, or really because of it, the experience feels all the more truthful to refugee experience. Even though the concept of re-contextualising it to British people is not new, it is certainly effective. Like other plays on the topic, it humanises displaced people, their need for sanctuary and their vulnerability to exploitation. If theatre repeats these messages enough, the world might start to listen.

Cargo runs through 6 August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Lost, Voyager Business Park

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An invitation to review this different kind of theatrical experience landed in my inbox:

Different Breed Theatre invite you to come down to Gary’s Warehouse in Bermondsey and watch an elf (well…he says he’s an elf, the little shit) talk his way out of a hostage-taking situation. Enjoy Anthony Neilson’s hour-long dark Christmas comedy ‘The Night Before Christmas’ performed by West End actors at bargain prices. There’s food from local market traders. There’s beer from local breweries. There’s questionable secret Santa gifts, rude Christmas cards, music, and of course, an elf. You might even get to sit on Santa’s (mildly pervy) knee.

Sounds like fun, right? This will be my last London production before heading north for the holidays and it sounds like a hell of a finale. Instead, what results is a confusing, audience-led, anti-climax with a profound lack of promised food and entertainment.

The press release gives a clear, full address: Unit 3, Voyager Business Estate, Spa Road, Bermondsey, London SE16 4RP. I follow normal procedure by using Maps on my phone when I don’t know a venue. Voyager Business Estate! Sounds exciting, like the spaceship. I rush from Bermondsey Station about 20 minutes before curtain. Time is tight so tension is building prematurely. Surrounded by blocks of new-build flats in the Bermondsey Spa regeneration area, I overshoot the small industrial estate. Consulting Maps verifies this instinct, so I turn around. Triumph! There is a lull in the action driven by success. On the corner by the railway arch, high above my head, a sign: Network Rail Voyager Business Park, Units 5-8. The set placement, in conjunction with lighting, deliberately challenges the audience, particularly if they are short with poor night vision.

The lull doesn’t last long. Five – eight! No! I need number three. The street isn’t well lit and I cross over to check the dark warehouses across the road, as I can’t read the signage. No, they were called something else. It’s 10 minutes to blast off. I ring the contact number on the press release, no answer, so I leave a message. Confusion and stress is rapidly increasing in this immersive, site-specific piece.

Then it dawns on me. This is the moment where the penny drops within the slow plot reveal.

There is no hostage elf. The audience of one is the hostage. A hostage of time, a clever invitation and trendy warehouse theatre. Or am I? That seed of doubt is still present, but I now know that it is the product of years of honest, run-of-the-mill press releases that disclose more to press than they do to audiences. This is a progressive, cutting edge approach to marketing and press management, but one not particularly suited to objectivity.

A ha! Units 1-4, on the other side of the railway line. Another sign stoically sits at the top of the fence. No sign of a spaceship, though. The units are small small, set back in the railway arches. The gates are open so I can walk into the car park with a few vans, strategically using the space to block sightlines and further exacerbate audience tension. Low lighting helps generates a sinister environment.

I face Unit 3. It’s shuttered. No lights. It’s 7:27. The shutter is sturdy and dark, an effective aversion to potential trespassers, symbolizing the shutters around cynics’ hearts in the run up to Christmas. I phone again. Still no answer. I leave another message. I like the agency of using our own phones to make contact and the integration of technology, a powerful reminder of our dependency on mobile phones.

It’s at this point that the experience is a let down. There is no signage, no other characters, nothing. Just me, stood in a dark, empty car park. Do I wait? The plot starts to disintegrate. I explore the space. I even knock on the unit 3 shutter. Is this a test? A puzzle? Will I soon be met by someone who’s running late? Whatever this performance has become, it’s effectively evoking anxiety in the audience. A final phone call goes straight to voicemail. The performance started a few minutes ago but it already feels like it’s ended despite the promised hour-long running time. The sound also seems to malfunction, as there is no music. Stomach growls also pointedly comment on the obvious lack of food and drink. I decide to utilize my autonomy and head home.

As hours pass and puzzlement fails to dissipate, I question the message of the piece. It raises more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the entire point: sometimes, communications and events mysteriously malfunction, but it’s up to us to take control of the spaceship that is our life. A powerful thought.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Town Hall Cherubs, Battersea Arts Centre

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Dear Town Hall Cherubs,

I know we only met yesterday afternoon but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since then. Concentrating at work today has been really hard – I couldn’t wait to leave so I could pen this missive, and I’ve been fighting the tiredness that comes with broken sleep filled with golden apples, inflatable little friends, snow and glitter. I’m off somewhere else tonight, but I’m still smiling at the memories of your gentle journey of discovery around Battersea Arts Centre. I’d love to keep you all to myself, but your warm, generous nature shouldn’t be caged, nor is it fair of me to prevent others, young and old, from experiencing the wonderful joy you evoke. So here’s a review for you to share with families far and wide:

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄

The first generation of immersive theatre fans are growing up. The twenty-somethings who discovered Punchdrunk in their early days are 30-somethings. Now immersed in nappies and temper tantrums as well as non-traditional theatre, these new parents will have high expectations of children’s theatre. Pros arch, run-of-the-mill theatre isn’t enough for them, or their progeny. Fortunately, that first wave of immersive theatre makers is also starting families of their own. Merging interactive, immersive and promenade theatre to create a site-specific adventure for 2-5 year olds, Theatre Ad Infinitum and Sarah Golding from Battersea Arts Centre team up to create children’s show Town Hall Cherubs, a winter adventure that brings the building’s distinctive architecture to life among a landscape of sensory-focused design elements.

Dani (Danielle Marshall) gently rallies a group of children, parents and early years teachers in a cozy corner next to the BAC’s grand staircase. Soothing music and colouring in a drawing of a cherub warms the children to her before they head up the stairs to a discovery on the landing. They find a cherub (joyful and wide eyed Barra Collins) and a fabric garland that continues their music-accompanied journey through several rooms; each contains interactive, sturdy set and design. My favourite is a room full of “little friends”, inflatable blobs by Amy Pennington that the children can dance and climb cardboard mounts with, roll, cuddle and any other imaginative play they can create. The children also discover a giant kaleidoscope by Ted Barnes and Amy Pitt, and a replica of the BAC staircase that Deborah Pugh brings to life as Sarah, a dragon-seahorse creature that’s scared of falling down.

Though the kids won’t notice or care, the moral tacked onto the end feels unnecessarily teacher-y, and Cherub’s plan to go on an adventure and then return home could have been clearer at the beginning. These tiny potential improvements certainly don’t detract from the quiet, calming joy of the event.

This isn’t a high energy, raucous performance. It’s intimate, gentle and encouraging with the pace dictated by the group. As an adult without a child there, it was a joy to observe the children’s reactions to their discoveries and freedom to engage with their new surroundings without fear. It’s a powerful reminder to notice the tiny details around us and enjoy the pleasure of experiencing something new beyond our regular routines.

❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄ ❄

Thank you again, Town Hall Cherubs, for having me along on your gorgeous little adventure.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PayPal.

Never Ending Night, The Vaults

“Immersive” is a trendy term that’s rather overused in theatre at the moment. But what is it, exactly? The same can be said for “site-specific” and “interactive” theatre. Audiences are seeking out alternative theatre experiences that aren’t just sitting in a dark room and watching actors tell a story, and theatre producers are obliging, using the aforementioned vocabulary often too liberally and consequently diminishing the words’ meaning. Established practitioners of immersive performance include Punchdrunk, probably the most well-known, Secret Cinema’s events that are part cinema and part theatre, and Coney’s use of game design to empower audiences. Many other companies and individual shows also describe their work as immersive; some definitely is whereas others is less concretely categorised. CCSD lecturer Dr. Gareth White says the accepted definition of immersive theatre is a production that contains “installations and expansive environments, which have mobile audiences, and which invite audience participation.” But is that entirely accurate?

Never Ending Night at the Waterloo Vaults is immersive in that the audience is freely mobile in a space fully kitted out as a bunker for the survivors of a global pandemic. The audience is first taken through decontamination, where personal effects are checked and white boiler suits and masks are provided. There is a distinct air of authority that the audience dares not violate. The first part of the performance is set outdoors in one of the two large rooms that contain the show. It’s a desolate street, with bodies of the living, barely living and dead. Lighting guides the audience to individual moments, promenade style. This provides clear, concise exposition to the world created. Narratives overlap, creating snapshot moments of grief and desperation, but it’s not frantic. Soldiers in boiler suits take the last survivors and the audience into the next room, where the rest of the play happens.

The audience can spend as much or as little time with any given character as they chose. There are several options: following a character, staying in one space to see what characters come and go, or move to scenes as they occur; each will create a totally different experience. The survivors have all been in this bunker for quite some time, and a reference to nearby Waterloo Station adds an element of site-specific performance, but doesn’t seem important to any particular narrative. The structure gives the audience autonomy, but with a large cast, individual characters have few scenes so it’s hard to connect to their experiences and learn about the little details of their lives.

There is no interaction between the audience and the actors, which raises the question of whether or not Never Ending Night is fully immersive. Can immersive theatre not be interactive? My initial instinct is to say no, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily correct, showing the issue with the lack of a standard definition. The audience here, even in provided costume, are merely observers with an unclear role. They are not residents of the facility, nor are they government officials. Even if they are there to observe, the reason why is never made clear.

Created by a company of actors trained in the Meisner Technique of character development, this quietly ending piece feels more like an extended acting exercise. It would certainly be possible for the audience and actors to speak to each other without disrupting the main scenes at any given moment, but create a new level of intimacy and depth. There characters are interesting enough to want to engage with them, but the audience was invisible. There are numerous encounters between characters and emotions are often running high, which make for excellent bursts of dramatic tension. These are too brief, within a form that goes on for too long, however. The ensemble cast remains excellent, with immense focus and emotional truth Meisner would commend. The gentle ending is a powerful anti-climax, after which the audience is set free into the night.

It is a well-managed, polished piece of ensemble theatre, but the opportunity to develop a relationship with the characters is not provided. They would continue to function and interact in their world with our without the audience present. Consequently, this is a great production for those looking for an unconventional theatre experience without the pressure of audience participation. The setting is clear, but what isn’t, is what the audience is meant to take from the experience. Still the performances are good, as is the design and it’s a worthy attempt at a form that is still developing, whether or not it really counts as immersive.


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.