Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: 'For King and Country: 1944' at CoLab Factory, 14th March 2018

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Just under a year ago I reviewed Parabolic Theatre's For King and Country, which tasked the audience with repelling a Nazi invasion of England in 1940. I loved it. Proper immersive theatre is surprisingly hard to find, with many shows billing themselves as immersive despite being nothing of the sort. But Parabolic do it right, trusting the audience to move the narrative along and nudging us towards developments that feel organic. 

So when I was invited along to the sequel, For King and Country: 1944, I leapt at the chance. Whereas the previous show asked us to play a fictional government under threat of invasion, 1944 drops us into a United Kingdom now firmly under the Nazi jackboot. Operation Sealion was a success, Winston Churchill has been executed, the British Army is now under Nazi command and Oswald Mosley seems pleased as punch.

But all is not lost. It is June 6th, 1944 and on the east Irish coast there's an Allied liberation force formed of American and Commonwealth troops. They're preparing to invade Britain and drive the fascists out - but they're going to need support from Resistance fighters remaining in London if they're going to succeed. And that's where you come in.

Correctly taking the view that if it's broken don't fix it, 1944 is structurally very similar to its predecessor. The audience is divided into different departments which need to co-operate with one another to achieve shared goals, our decisions are evaluated and consequences decided off-stage and we must react and cope with events taking place around the country. 

If this all sounds a bit intimidating, it is. At least to begin with. Though the audience is trusted to link pieces of information, draw conclusions from them and execute a plan, the cast is always ready to help and, if you're going seriously off-piste, will subtly point you back in the right direction.

I spent my time in the Intelligence Department, which consisted of poring over documents in order to direct the other departments towards military and espionage aims. Whoever at Parabolic is in charge of producing all this paperwork deserves some kind of award - it's all utterly convincing, full of world-building detail and has a trail of breadcrumbs scattered through it that rewards lateral thinking. 

Based on these documents our team successfully sniffed out secret Nazi weapons programmes, made calls impersonating Nazi commanders so as to confuse the chain of command, and forged documents to get our spies and assassins where they needed to be. Now, you might not think forging documents would be particularly exciting - but it's surprisingly rewarding to figure out ways to replicate every last detail of a document with what you have to hand.

I don't want to explain too much more of what happens for fear of spoiling the surprise, but much like its prequel, I had a great time putting myself into another world and puzzling my way through a situation completely removed from my everyday life. Huge credit to the cast (Christopher Styles, Edward Andrews, Zoe Flint, Tom Black, Ed Cartwright, Beth Whitaker and Owen Kingston), who are some of the most quick-witted and natural improvisers I've seen in years.

So how does 1944 compare to 1940? Both are excellent shows, but I think the original remains the one to see. I think this boils down to 1944 feeling less dynamic: you are essentially a third party in the conflict between the Nazis and Allied Forces, which makes you feel slightly less involved in what's happening than if you were, say, commanding the invading forces yourself. Similarly, while the objectives and surprising developments are fun, there's nothing quite on the same level as the revelations you learn in 1940.

Plus - and this is in no way a criticism of the company or the show - at the performance I attended there were a couple of Hooray Henry city boys who got drunk, sniggered and whispered through the serious moments, and had to be told not to take selfies in the middle of the show. To the audience's credit, there were attendees who took the whole thing seriously, but it's a reminder that any show that relies so much on the audience can easily be spoiled by a couple of bad eggs.

If you've already seen and loved 1940, this is a no-brainer. The way Parabolic Theatre develop the story and construct a scarily believable world is way beyond what other immersive companies are trying to achieve. That said, it doesn't quite hit the heights of what came before, but it's still an easy recommendation.

For King and Country: 1940 and 1944 are playing on alternate nights (and as a weekend double-bill) at Colab Factory until April 28th. Tickets here.

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