Flabbergast’s The Swell Mob pushes the boundaries of immersive theatre

Flabbergast’s The Swell Mob pushes the boundaries of immersive theatre

As audiences become increasingly eager to experience something different, new formats of theatre have emerged. “Immersive dining”, for instance, is a phrase which would have been largely unheard of even 20 years ago.

However, Flabbergast’s The Swell Mob, currently showing at London Bridge’s COLAB Theatre, combines gaming, acting, improv and puppetry to create an evening which is as far removed from sitting in a seat and watching a performance as you could get.

Set in an 1840s tap room, audience members are encouraged to dress up (note to self: denim jeans weren’t invented until the 1870s) and leave all thoughts of 2019 - with its cars, computers and mobile phones - firmly at the door.

An entirely interactive space, you can speak to any number of reprobates who will regale you with stories, serenade you with songs or, in the case of one particularly slippery character, steal your coin purse. As you have more conversations, it becomes clear that there are existing relationships, allegiances and grudges.

However, far from being an observer, you have an important task to complete. This is where the experience becomes similar to an escape room. That said, not knowing which audience members are on who’s side leads to a lot of cautious conversations and exclamations of “no, you tell me first”. Meanwhile, there are card games to play, a boxing match to bet on and various rooms to explore.

The play can end in a number of different ways depending on decisions and discoveries made by the audience. For example, if you return for another performance you’ll almost certainly discover new clues, anecdotes and plot lines.

The level of acting is outstanding. One character, for instance, remains in a trance for much of the performance before ceremoniously coming alive with an entirely different personality. As is often the case, the actors themselves are each very different from the complex yet convincing characters they portray. As a small production, you are able to speak to the cast after the show and witness this firsthand.

Similar stateside productions include Los Angeles’ Wilderness and New York’s critically acclaimed Sleep No More which is run by British immersive theatre company Punchdrunk.

As for The Swell Mob, I have one main piece of advice. The performance is fast-paced and relatively short (weekend performances are 15 minutes longer) so it’s best to be agile. Therefore, when you’re told to move to a new room or floor, follow their lead.

The cast, we were told afterwards, sometimes have to communicate in code to update each other on where the story is going. There are some rehearsed scenes but the narrative feels entirely organic in the way that it unfolds. Needless to say, I can only divulge so much without giving the game away. However, if The Swell Mob is anything to go by, non-linear immersive storytelling is the future of theatre.

The Swell Mob is running until 25 August at COLAB Theatre in London Bridge. Tickets start at £26 ($30)