Journeying through divided 1600’s London and the hardships engendering an explosive plot to kill the King, The Gunpowder Plot is a fully immersive mixed-media production. Its concept is certainly ambitious: participants are guided through the vaults by a series of actors playing vying Catholic and Protestant citizens, with the performance supplemented by VR experiences, lighting and projections.
The Tower Vaults venue is in itself historic and exciting, and the staff are friendly, but I encountered a lack of guidance regarding how to actually engage with the show. Had I not got lost finding the toilets I would have missed the production’s health and safety waiver, and, more importantly, a prosecco reception. It was unclear when and where the experience would begin, despite having been given a wristband and a timeslot: when I approached staff at said time I was told to continue waiting. This was not a significant delay, but the lack of clarity was unsettling.
The strong cast of actors must be commended for balancing the task of performance with managing crowds and guiding audience engagement. I particularly appreciated our cheeky guide Thomas’ (Cormac Elliot) quick-witted response to an unexpected fire alarm, covering for the technical difficulty by likening it to church bells. Audience members are encouraged to participate in the exposition, handling props or responding to narrative prompts, and Siobhan Gallagher’s evocative, engaging performance as Anne stood out in this requirement,.
The VR component is like nothing I have experienced on stage – describable perhaps as similar to 4D theme park rides. I really enjoyed the narratives, including being zip-wired out of the Tower of London and rowing down the Thames dressed as a plague doctor. Cleverly curated design adjoins the 1600’s to the modern day, likening VR headsets to crowns, plague doctor masks, and hanging ropes.
Unfortunately, I had technical difficulties with two of the three headsets I used. The first crashed twice, meaning parts of the video repeated, so I was late removing it and missed the continuation of the performance. I later experienced a whited-out view, and was told this was my fault for touching the sensors: the problem nonetheless recurred even when keeping my hands firmly lowered. This certainly affected the immersive nature of the event, and I felt let down having not been offered another headset. The production would perhaps benefit from a trial usage of the technology during the introduction.
The marketing highlights actor Tom Felton, who appears in entertaining, pre-recorded VR scenes as Guy Fawkes himself. However Fawkes is also played live by a different, masked actor voiced through a speaker, which was a little uncanny valley. Unfortunately, I found myself focussing on the strangeness of the inconsistency rather than the performance.
I was at other times confused as to how I should respond to aspects of the experience: powerful content such as re-enactments of religious persecution evoke shock and solemnity, yet the fun of interactive theatre had me giggling, as I adorned a hood and hid in a cupboard. The production successfully created both a serious and fun environment, but the merging of the two had me conflicted as to what I should be feeling.
Ultimately, The Gunpowder Plot is an engaging retelling of historical legend, hosted in the ideal location. There’s much fun to be had, and challenging ethics to contemplate; I particularly appreciated that the audience were encouraged to re-consider narratives of oppression and rebellion, and the controversial legacy of Guy Fawkes himself. The cast are effective both in emotive performance and in managing the interactive story, but ultimately the overall logistics of the production felt a little underbaked.
Written by: Danny Robins
Executive Produced by: Martin Heap
Creative Direction by: Hannah Price
Production Design by: Tom McQuillen-Wright
VR and Filmed Content Direction by: Simon Reveley
The Gunpowder Plot plays at Tower Hill Vaults until 4 September. Tickets are available via Ticketmaster via the below button.