Theatre Review: Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

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

Theatre Review: Alice’s Adventures Underground, the Vaults, Waterloo, London

Les Enfants Terribles' Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Go down the rabbit hole for a wonderful immersive experience in Alice’s Wonderland

You could argue that it’s difficult to go wrong with a story as enchanting as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the slightly darker follower up Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There , but handling a text as bonkers and imaginative as Carroll’s demands big creative thinking.

The minds behind Les Enfants Terribles’ brilliant production were clearly firing on full creative juices when they devised Alice’s Adventures Underground, a production that has transformed the musty, damp Vaults theatre under Waterloo station into a magical place where we disappear into Alice’s – and Carroll’s world – for 90-joyous minutes.

The production merges Alice’s first adventure in Wonderland with her return in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice is absent for much of our journey, but she’s never very far away if you look in the right places…

Wonderland is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen who has banished nonsense from her kingdom and is on the warpath to find the cards who ate her tarts (I can confess I was one of them now there’s no chance of having my head cut off).

The content is perhaps a little light, but the plot isn’t an issue when the staging is so charming and entertaining. Samuel Wyer’s maze-like set is hugely impressive as we weave in and out of the Caterpillar’s middle eastern cushion-strewn den into Bill the Lizard’s ‘secret’ room, ducking under corridors hung with pages from novels and walking through wardrobes. There are some wonderful details in the set, particularly in Lewis Carroll’s cluttered study, the first room we find ourselves in, that’s littered with references to the novels if you look hard enough.

Oliver Lansley’s script is sparkling and funny and throws new light on the sheer inventiveness of Carroll’s often poetic prose. The interactions with the actors also lead to some properly belly-laugh moments (Knave of Hearts: “What fruits to do you think are in All-Fruit-Jam?” Audience member: “Strawberry”. Knave “…”

Along the way you meet the floating grinning head of the Cheshire Cat (a great piece of puppetry) and enter the Duchess’s steamy kitchen where I stood grinding pepper into the soup under the stern eyes of Chef. You, as the audience are very much a part of this so leave any self-consciousness at the burrow door.

The exact journey you have will depends on the choices you make and the cards you are – literally – dealt. Will you drink to shrink or eat to er, grow? Will you be a Club, Spade, Diamond or Heart? After separating through two doors, each group is taken on their separate journey before meeting up again at the lush Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where you sit at a huge table set for 60 celebrating an un-birthday while the Mad Hatter and March Hare run riot over broken tea-cups and poor dormouse, confusing the poor White Rabbit (who was as adorable as he should be) with their endless tea-time and confusing riddles.

The production is wonderfully imaginative and hugely fun. Grown-up theatre is many things, but it’s rarely as playful and charming as Alice’s Underground Adventures. The production runs until 30 August 2015. Don’t be late to the party…

Alice’s Underground Adventures | the Vaults Theatre, Waterloo | Until 30 August 2015