Friday, February 14, 2020

Review: 'Crooks 1926' at the King William IV, 13th February 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I'd love to be a fly on the wall when COLAB Theatre is planning out a new production. An astonishing amount of work must go into this: writing a central plot, writing secondary plots that a fraction of the audience will see, producing reams of written material to use in the show and mapping out how to best exploit the space. And then there's the wild card: us.

The audience is an element of chaos in a carefully calibrated system, the actors figuring out on the fly how to keep us entertained, provide us with goals, maintain the fiction and contain any troublemakers. I've adored the last two COLAB show I've seen, For King and Country and its sequel For King and Country: 1944. These two shows tasked audiences with battling the Nazis in an alternative history scenario. Last night I saw their latest, Crooks 1926.

I was a little nervous about this as this show is clearly heavily inspired by the TV show Peaky Blinders. I've never watched a single episode and have only the vaguest idea what it's about. Fortunately, I very quickly realised that though this might be designed to attract fans of the show, it isn't actually set within its world (at least, as far as I could tell).

Soon after entering the audience quickly becomes part of an up and coming London street gang. Its patriarch is dead and his sons have taken over and have ambitions for expansion. But there are rivals who would rather strangle this in the crib: with villainous boss Sabini arriving and demanding £10,000 by the end of the day. It's our job to con, steal, cheat and blackmail our way to victory, all the while fending off the old bob and solving various mysteries.

As was the case with the previous productions I've seen, the audience is managed by splitting them off into different teams and then further subdividing those into two or three-person tasks. One smart thing that I appreciate is that the show caters for both introverts and extroverts by providing tasks that appeal to both. So those less willing to interact with the cast can pore over documents and strategise and those who want to show off a bit can improvise scenes with the cast. 

The cast warns the audience not to spoil too many details so I'll stop there, but COLAB more than achieves their goal of immersing the audience in this knockabout world. The final moments of the play are absolutely gripping, with the room so tense you could hear a pin drop.

And yet, compared to the taut and focused For King and Country shows, there were several very unfocused moments. I should preface any criticism by saying that every who attends will have a different experience and maybe I just had bad luck. But throughout the night I kept running into narrative loose ends. Packages I was supposed to collect never arrived, I was given the wrong clues when I asked for codenames at the bar (very confusing), a locked room puzzle included multiple versions of the same key and, worst of all, there were frequent moments where I had nothing at all to do and just kinda milled around.

Maybe this was just a rough night, but I asked the cast members for a couple of pointers and they said they'd get back to me with something to do. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't. It's a looseness I hadn't experienced at a COLAB show before - maybe it's a function of the show taking place over multiple rooms of a building rather than one large room?

I know that putting together a show like this is an insanely complex process, and I know the generally the more an audience member puts into immersive theatre the more they get out of it, but things felt a little more rough and chaotic than usual here. 

Still, COLAB remains a cut above pretty much every theatre company working in London today. I'm going to chalk this up as just an unfortunate evening rather than any serious problems with the show. Still, as I left I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed.

Crooks 1926 is booking until March 29th. Tickets here.

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