Pros: Splendid interactive drama, superb character acting and an outstanding location.
Cons: It does get rather cold in there – wear warm clothing and sensible shoes.
Think of an interactive murder mystery in which you, the audience, must solve the crime, and you’ll probably imagine a seedy hotel ballroom in the off-season downtime. But The Silhouette in the Smoke is a genre-busting show that breathes new life into a tired genre.
Let me put you in the middle of this one-of-a-kind experience, set you down in 1871. For an hour or so you have chased an actor through the dark, deserted, London Museum of Water and Steam, lit only by the lanterns you carry. You race up and down stairs and through narrow walkways between the heavy machinery, observing the actor in conversation with the other players they meet along the way. Suddenly offstage, machinery is heard. Workhouse orphan Billy Ward is dead. Who killed him, and why? These are the questions you must answer, as you gather in groups to compare your findings, examine photographs and discuss the events you’ve witnessed.
Amidst the museum’s gloriously impressive surroundings ticket holders initially gather round tables to meet their fellow sleuths. Over high tea (a truly Victorian affair featuring scones, Victoria sponge cake, and both cucumber and coronation chicken sandwiches) psychic manipulator Jackdaw (Ben Hale) explains that recent maintenance work in the museum has unearthed a pair of child’s boots, complete with skeletal feet. A series of ghostly wailings have been scaring the customers away.
The cast of characters are individually and collectively superb. There’s the feckless pump station superintendent Matthew Shaw (aristocratically played by Edmund Attril), his domineering wife Eleanor (a strident Christie Peto), the bolshy Irish chief engineer (a magnetic performance by Gareth Turkington) and his spiteful apprentice, Harry (a perfectly petulant Adam Hughes). Visiting the pumping station are the newly-widowed grand dame Matilda Robinson (Debbie Bird, in a performance that would put Maggie Smith to shame), with her companion Sarah Hughes (a charmingly winsome Bethan Leyshon).
For myself the most entertaining part of the evening came as we were permitted to interrogate each of the players, quizzing them on their actions, motivations and histories. But – and this is where the show really stands out – they’re far from willing witnesses, viewing you with suspicion and reserve. You must find their weak spots and threaten them in order to reveal their secrets; or cajole them, playing to their better natures, using whatever subterfuge you can dream up. Throughout this time the actors remain perfectly in character, refusing to talk to you if they take against certain members of your party, gradually revealing (if you’re persistent and cunning enough) the information you need. Of course, they don’t always tell the truth.
When actors perform their set pieces in different rooms, in radically different areas of the pumping station, it seems miraculous that they manage to time their actions so that Matthew meets his wife on the stairs as she’s coming down them, or that Harry should happen to bump into Mrs Robinson by the new engine; but this is all down to the skilful direction of Rosanna Mallinson, who is on hand throughout in the character of Magpie to ensure the evening runs to plan.
This is a show that achieves all it sets out to do, with wit and style. The magnificent surroundings of the pumping station provide the perfect backdrop, and the actors’ characterisation never wavers under pressure. A hugely enjoyable evening, which cannot be recommended too highly. (And the high tea was a real bonus.)