Photo: Jordan Chandler
“So… how are you even going to write a review about that?” were the first words out of my companion’s mouth as I left the COLAB Factory venue. I have now reviewed countless musicals (my forte) and plays (I wasn’t so used to those when I started) but never have I reviewed a piece of immersive theatre. This was brand new to me and I 100% didn’t know what to expect.
In a way, that was probably better. If anyone had tried to describe Flabbergast Theatre’s The Swell Mob to me before I disappeared through a curtain into a dingy bar from the 1800s, I would probably have just been confused. Or more likely, very intrigued. This is a piece of theatre that has to be seen to be understood. And to be honest, I’m not even sure I understood it having seen it…
This is not a criticism. Theatre should push boundaries. It should take you out of your comfort zone and it should make you question what you experience. I was only immersed in The Swell Mob for an hour, which is how long the “performance” lasts for, but I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.
Before you enter, you are asked to sign an agreement, which is between you and “The Master”. It warns of uneven floors, claustrophobic spaces and that you must take heed of what you are asked to do. So far, so unusual. My friend and I were the first in the queue, which after the aforementioned agreement, was slightly unnerving. We walked through a door and entered an almost pitch black and very small space. We were greeted by a ghostly girl in a white dress, telling us to proceed and after groping around a little, we pulled back a heavy black drape.
We were at once transported into another world. This bar would not have looked out of place in Les Misérables or Pirates of the Caribbean, but had a much more sinister air. Full of old, mismatched furniture and a real dog asleep on a sofa, it could have been cosy, was it not for the half a dozen sunken-eyed people dotted around the room, staring into space… or staring at you. It’s not dramatic to say I felt a slight chill in my soul.
We made a beeline for the bar, which was the one slight disappointment for me, as for the few minutes we were being served, the illusion was somewhat broken. The bar staff were not dressed or acting as part of the show and seeing a fridge filled with cans of Fanta reminded you where you really were. But as soon as I was handed an old metal tankard full of gin (OK, and tonic), and turned around, I was sucked back into what can only be described as a nightmare.
You are encouraged to interact with the cast, and they immediately come up to speak to you, each expertly staying in character and each looking a little dead behind the eyes. We joined a table where we were greeted by Cornelius Fairweather, who professed to being the local preacher. He had deep red stains around his eyes and a tattoo on his neck which he informed us was to show who was a resident and who was a visitor. “But visitors often become residents…” he told us with a sinister air. It was then I noticed he was definitely holding a gun wrapped in a cloth. Eek!
A rousing sing song was led by a man playing an accordion, but this was silenced when a hunched figured came into the bar holding a small, terrifying looking puppet. This, we learned, was The Master. Silence fell, the residents stood, looking scared to death, and from then on, nothing it seemed was off limits.
There is a storyline running throughout the evening but things happen in different rooms and it can be easy to miss bits, although you may well see something which others don’t. The performers were fully committed to their roles and the costumes were superb. At all times you feel slightly unsure of what’s going on or what’s going to happen next, but this all adds to the immersive experience. The sense of confusion and disarray which seems to emanate from every corner of every room really captures you and it was unlike anything I’d experienced before.
I don’t want to spoil the show for anyone wishing to attend, but let’s just say this is not for the faint hearted, or anyone who doesn’t like to play along with things that are other-worldly. The Swell Mob is for fans of the peculiar; anyone who likes to be put outside their comfort zone and anyone who appreciates conceptual theatre in its purest form. You become immersed in their world, where you can drink and gamble (with the gold coins you are handed on arrival), have your fortune read, and you may even lose a lock of hair… The Swell Mob may well divide opinion but it will leave you wanting more… and questioning what the hell just happened.
Photo: Jordan Chandler