Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review: 'For King And Country' at CoLab Factory, 24th April 2018

For King And Country reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

'Immersive' is one of the great marketing buzzwords in contemporary theatre. Spurred on by the wild success of shows like PunchDrunk's The Drowned Man, it seems like every other show now bills itself as an immersive experience. Most of them simply aren't - they're either promenade pieces in which the audience watches a play staged over multiple rooms or just 'yer bog standard sit-down-and-shut-up play sandwiched between two thin bookends of interactivity.

So it's insanely refreshing that Parabolic Theatre and writer/director Owen Kingston's For King And Country is not just genuinely immersive, but that it takes full advantage of what immersive theatre can achieve.

The year is 1940, King Edward VIII sits on the throne alongside his wife, Wallis Simpson and Britain is in nervous turmoil. Nazi forces have seized the French Navy, crossed the Channel, landed on the south coast of England and are advancing towards London. The audience become the British Government's 'designated survivors' - a group of MPs and their families ordered to remain in an underground bunker and tasked with commanding of the war effort should the unthinkable happen to the sitting cabinet.

The unthinkable happens a couple of minutes after we take our seats and, under the guidance of a group of civil servants and military representatives, we form a new government and begin to formulate strategies against unfolding events. This consists of ordering the British forces around the south of England, keeping morale steady through inspiring and informative speeches and engaging in diplomacy with both the enemy and potential allies.

As MPs and Ministers we're expected to vote on issues like deploying chemical weapons, whether to execute Nazi prisoners accused of atrocities and whether to evacuate civilians from the cities, to name a few. These big decisions, and the actions we take in various ministries, have consequences - and we must rapidly adapt to these changing circumstances and try our best to keep wartime Britain in one piece and repel the Nazi invaders.

On paper it's a bit Mark Corrigan. Playing out an alt-history wargame and pretending to be old-timey generals and politicians doesn't exactly sound like the sexiest night in London - not to mention that the spitfires/blitz spirit/Winston Churchill/"Keep Calm And Carry On" (etc) iconography was mined to death over the Brexit campaign. There's a convincing argument that Britain needs to stop wallowing in a past that's all but faded from living memory and get a true picture of our geopolitical importance in 2018.

But For King And Country doesn't just fetishise the past, it uses it as a vehicle to examine very contemporary issues. For example, we instinctively and rightly condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but you see the issue from a different angle when you're asked if you'd use them to prevent our country falling under Nazi rule. Everyone believes politicians should strive for honesty and transparency, but would the populace really be happier if they discovered British bombers had accidentally destroyed Canterbury Cathedral rather than the Luftwaffe?

Very quickly you start thinking of the people you are governing as resources to be utilised and problems to be solved, with high-falutin' ethical stances quickly sacrificed on the altar of the 'greater good'. If you can start to go mad with power after 15 minutes in a Borough basement, the mind boggles at what must be going on in the heads of politicians with real sway over people's lives. Realisations like these demonstrate the power of immersive theatre: we're not being lectured about the perils of power and the fog of war, we experience and understand it.

That the show achieves this so successfully is testament to the theatrical skill and intelligence with which its constructed. The cast (Christopher Styles, Edward Andrews, Zoe Flint, Peter Dewhurst, Tom Black, Michael Thomas, Lauren Reed and Owen Kingston) are the most flexible improvisers I've seen in a long time and are also possessed of a encyclopaedic knowledge of the time period. There is apparently nothing they can deal with without breaking character - their sincerity and skill subtly encouraging the audience to take the show seriously.

It all adds up an incredibly fun, thought-provoking and exciting night of theatre. One of the perils of truly immersive theatre is that the show is only ever as good as the audience that night, but I suspect For King And Country's careful construction will avoid that pitfall and encourage every audience member to be the best participant they can be.

In the murky sea of half-assed quasi-immersive experiences dotted around London, the sheer quality of For King And Country stands out a mile. It's the best thing I've seen this year so far - I can't recommend it highly enough. 

For King And Country runs at COLAB Factory until 10 June. Tickets here.

Pictures by Owen Kingston

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