There are three ways in which theatre companies can respond to the current crisis. They can furlough as many staff as they’re allowed and squint down the tunnel hoping desperately for a glint of light at the end. They can reopen with a socially distanced audience, paring back productions to match the reduced income. Or they can produce something genuinely innovative: this is the approach taken by One Night Records, whose immersive promenade performance sees the audience admitted in groups of up to 40, socially distanced, at 15-minute intervals from 7pm to 9pm each night.
The evening kicks off with an introduction to American popular music, delivered by the engaging David Calvitto. But the mood changes when he morphs into an immigration officer at Ellis Island, challenging your right to enter America and vetting your application. A young black woman – Everywoman – is initially rejected for her inability to speak or understand any English; but on seeing a photograph of her family in Tulsa, her takes pity on her and allows her to continue her quest.
Over the next couple of hours we follow Everywoman through a vast, sprawling network of tunnels beneath London Bridge station, relating the story of American music in reverse chronology. As we journey from the 1950s back to 1918 we pass through a rock and roll TV studio, a back porch featuring Dustbowl folk jazz, a sofa-filled club featuring Harlem blues, a railroad car containing a trad jazz band and a dusty ragtime setting, walls plastered with posters warning of the prevalence of Spanish Flu – a timely echo. Each location is a separate gig, presented by talented bands and solo musicians whose lineup changes every week. This initiative is to give 300 artists the opportunity to perform during the show’s three month run, at a time when actors and musicians are struggling to find work.
Each room features an inspired set created by Casey Jay Andrews, making the most of the tunnel space and providing a series of engaging atmospheric backdrops. Kerri McLean’s razor-sharp direction results in pacy, engaging tableaux, as Joanna Penso’s production moves the audience smoothly from room to room with impeccable timing. There are multiple opportunities for you to buy cocktails and other drinks during the show, and at one point to order themed food, delivered at your Chesterfield sofa in Harlem in the following scene.
Throughout the evening we follow Everywoman’s journey from Ellis Island to Tulsa. Played by four different actors, she forms the common thread that links all the scenes together. Her final appearance (played by Sharlene Hector) when she finally arrives in Tulsa, is one of the most emotionally charged, heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
Lockdown Town is a hugely entertaining show that makes the most of current restrictions with real flair. At £50 a ticket it’s closer to West End pricing than fringe; but you’ll never experience a show as immersive or as engaging as this in the West End. And damn, it’s good to be back in the theatre.
Lockdown Town is currently booking until 30 December.
Directed by: Kerri McLean
Produced by: One Night Records