This immersive show is more M4 Travelodge than Savoy
The trend for immersive theatre, spearheaded so brilliantly by companies like Punch Drunk, seems to be in danger of eating itself. It’s certainly lurching towards the end of the seesaw, balancing on the edge of the tipping point as everyone with a theatre studies A Level scrambles onto this exciting new trend they’ve read about in Time Out.
When it’s done well, as my last immersive adventure was, it’s captivating, enthralling and inventive, shaking up the traditional static theatrical model with humour and imagination. But, as with any new take on an art form, you have to understand the rule book before you go ripping it up.
Zebedee, the company behind Heartbreak Hotel, currently playing at The Jetty on the Thames by that great ode to the mainstream, the 02, had obviously thrown the Book of Theatre Rules into the river. The production, set in a fading seaside hotel purpose built from shipping containers, is rather adrift. The audience are taken from room to room, meeting the lost souls who reside within the hotel’s dimly lit walls. We, the audience, are treated as members of the new A.C.H.E (achieving creative heartfelt experiences) programme which has been established in the Heartbreak Hotel to, well, we’re never really told – is it to give people a convincing experience of love and heartbreak? Or is it a An Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brain wipe style programme?
The set up is a nice idea, and the set establishes an authentically shabby, sinister atmosphere. But the production lacks cohesion, purpose – and heart. The place, performance and, to an extent, the cast, felt like they’d already checked out on this miserable autumnal July day. We were launched straight into the middle of the play and there was no resolution – we were all marched to the rooftop (smashing view, mind) and left to shuffle away awkwardly as the play stopped dead in its tracks.
Even if your audience are standing, a dramatic arc is vital, without it you’re watching people say words in isolation and, as this show proved, that’s quite dull. Plus, an immersive production has to be just that – immersive – the audience has to be a part of the show not just bystanders. Otherwise we could buy a ticket for a show where we get to sit down. Beyond calling us by our names (we all had to wear stickers as if we were at a conference) there was little participation between the actors and the audience, indeed most of the time we might not have been there at all. Sometimes I wondered whether we shouldn’t be.
Heartbreak Hotel lurches between camp and tragedy and the result is jarring and confusing. The funny bits weren’t funny enough, the sad parts felt contrived and tried too hard to tug at our heartstrings with dramatic backstories that had no substance. The dialogue was largely improvised which, except in the very best of hands, is rarely a good idea. The lack of a script meant there was no emotional depth as the characters flailed around in a plotless abyss, desperately trying to claw some heart from a production as thin as the walls. Booking into the Heartbreak Hotel is most definitely not a five star experience.
Heartbreak Hotel | The Jetty | Until 27 September 2015