The Gunpowder Plot review – immersive experience doesn't set the world on fire
The immersive experience is playing in London
Travel on the tube in central London and you will see photos of Tom Felton, the actor who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise, plastered all over escalator walls. His video performance is the main selling point for The Gunpowder Plot – the latest immersive experience to land on London this year – presented by Layered Reality and Historic Royal Palaces.
Immersive experiences are in right now, and visitors in London are spoilt for choice with everything from Monopoly Lifesized, to Doctor Who: Time Fracture and now this – a high-budget dramatization of a significant period in Britain's history, featuring virtual reality (VR) headsets. The result is a somewhat badly executed, disappointing hour and 40 minutes.
The central question is whether Guy Fawkes was a hero or a villain. For anyone who has not lived natively, this question has no context – Bonfire Night is a UK-specific holiday. Visitors in the attraction take on the role of Catholics fleeing persecution under James VI's Protestant regime and get tied up in a complex network of spies and double agents.
The narrative is difficult to grasp without prior knowledge of UK history and can easily become a glorified game of hide and seek which, while fun, loses much of its meaning. If The Gunpowder Plot is intended to be a tourist attraction, it would do well to more accessible to anyone with no prior knowledge of British history or culture.
Having said that, the script does introduce historical tidbits from the Gunpowder Plot in an interactive way, but much of the writing is exaggeratedly sentimental and historical simplistic. Many of the actors' emotional, dramatic moments are greeted with ambivalence or chuckles from the audience. There is an interesting thread throughout the experience about religious violence, and the audience are asked whether an act of terrorism that kills thousands of people is worth it to make a statement about Catholic oppression. This could have been politically pertinent except that the audience are not emotionally invested in the characters' lives, so the idea of blowing up Parliament becomes a bit of a joke, with most people laughing and cheering their support.
In terms of the immersion itself, Tahra Zafar's costumes and Tim McQuillen-Wright's set and props do well to create a sense of time travel and Simon Reveley's immersive video content builds a story all around you. Figures of authority wear ruffs and elaborate dresses and jailed dissidents cower in dirty and worn prison garments. Audiences put on disguises, duck around obstacles, crack codes and hide inside secret cupboards. It's a lot of fun, although this critic found the experience of hiding in a priest hole terrifying, being constantly on edge in case someone stormed in. Perhaps that aspect is more suited to braver souls. The immersion does a good job of putting the audience on edge.
On the whole, the live elements work well. The performers commit to their roles and deliver thought-out performances. They bring the story to life and add a sense of urgency that makes the audience feel like a part of the action, as well as giving us entertaining duels choreographed by fight director Kevin McCurdy. Alongside the performances, Adrienne Quartly's sound effects and music, and Robbie Butler's lighting create tension and a feeling of danger around you, which is pleasant for thrill-seekers but again, terrifying for jumpy cowards like this critic. Disappointingly, over half of the virtual reality headsets this critic put on did not work, were full of static, or were uncalibrated so that the action was off-centre. Given the central place that VR takes in the experience, the headsets should be better maintained. The live elements worked much better.
All in all, the experience is a bit of fun and a bit of a thrill, but it doesn't leave a lasting impression. There is some interesting political commentary with the discussion of terrorism, but it doesn't go very far. The main thrust is you come in, do the tour, take photos, have a drink and leave. It is an enjoyable enough commercial attraction, but it doesn't go much deeper than that.