The immersive ‘Crooks 1926’ from CoLab Theatre

CrooksPhoto by Michael Kaltenborn

Yesterday I went to the Sunday performance of Colab Theatre’s ‘Crooks 1926′, staged in their new permanent dedicated space in Elephant & Castle, the King William IV. With over 10 years experience of creating immersive theatre, I expected good things, but nothing could prepare me for the level of authentic detail, both in the staging of the space, and the actors’ performances.  They have created a fully immersive world for their audiences to explore. I delighted in engaging with the space, and discovering so many beautiful and thoughtful period details.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not usually a fan of immersive theatre, as I tend to find it stressful, and over-hyped. However with Colab Theatre I felt safe and happy throughout, helped by the fact that they don’t oversell the space. With a surprisingly small cast, they create a wonderful range of characters, and invite the audience to supplement the cast by playing different parts. Instead of hiding in the toilet, I embraced being ‘Big Dave’ for the afternoon. I even got to give a speech, I kept it short, but I like to think passionate. And I didn’t have to do it, you are not forced to do anything you don’t want to do. There is even a safe word, which has had the annoying side effect of leaving me craving a certain tropical fruit.

I can see why Colab Theatre have chosen the space at 16 Harper Road to make their permanent home. It is wonderfully laid out with connecting rooms, a creepy basement, and, very importantly, a bar that sits at the heart of the action (I can confirm that the gin & tonics are excellent by the way).  There are lots of corners to hide things, which is important when various audience members find themselves on different quests, hunting for clues across the building, which all have the capacity to contribute to the overall action of the piece.  There are puzzles, and codes to be cracked, jobs to be planned, people to be hired, revenge to be had, and scores to be settled. Is there a rat in the group? Was Robert MacDonald murdered? With a gang war brewing, who will come out on top?

Instead of being “a play”, ‘Crooks 1926’ encourages you to play, which I found really refreshing. If you like to be on top of everything that is going on in a show, and digging in to every plot point, this probably isn’t for you. My experience of the specific performance yesterday, and the different story elements I was exposed to, will be different to that of my fellow audience members. Obviously the main over-arching plot driving elements are shared by all, and we are brought together for the big revelations and moments, but everything else is, to a certain extent, personalised.

My one top-tip for future audiences is that over the course of the show you get broken up into 3 groups 3 times, and you pretty well self select, so you will want to make sure you rotate round all 3. As I felt the need to redeem myself with regard to certain code breaking skills I failed to demonstrate the first time round, I did a section twice, so I missed out on the gambling bit. Probably for the best, I don’t need to add to my bad habits.

‘Crooks 1926’ is such a fun experience. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy playing games, as I do it so rarely these days. The cast are brilliant, and such fun to interact with. They are so committed to the parts they play, which pushes you to engage even more. Their improvisation skills are phenomenal, as they can never know what each audience will throw at them (creatively, not literally I hope). The front of house/bar team were also key in bringing the period to life, and provided support to the cast when it came to watching us and keeping us on task.  No matter how confused I might have got at the beginning (it took me a while to get under the skin of ‘Big Dave’, I wasn’t exactly typecast), there was always someone to gently nudge us (a friend bought a ticket and joined me) back on track.

‘Crooks 1926’ runs until Sunday 29th March. I highly recommend going with a friend who will join you in embracing the experience. I found it so enjoyable and engaging, it has definitely helped me get over my phobia of immersive theatre. How they manage to deliver this depth of experience at only £28 a ticket, I really don’t know.  You can find out more here:

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