Virulent Experience, created by John Harrigan & Foolish People, is an intriguing, ambitious experiment, and for this alone the company and actors deserve praise and admiration. But all experiments carry a risk of failure, and this 'immersive theatre event' doesn’t quite come off. Basically, if you like Punchdrunk, you’ll probably be disappointed by the missed opportunities in this.
The show’s set in a fictional future London of 2040, with another Olympics looming (tokenistically mentioned, then immediately forgotten) where Conway Hall, home of the Humanist Society, has become the Museum of Virulent Experience. The night gets off to a promising start: ticket-holders are 'processed' and arbitrarily assigned Alpha or Epsilon status (an interesting idea, sadly under-explored) then told about further aspects of this alternate world: SureHeart implants, emotional suppression and more.
Visitors are cast in the role of candidates for a mysterious programme which may result in their becoming Engrams – human repositories of raw emotion such as sadness, fear, anger etc. Two 'suits' and two doctors address audience members at length, warning them that interfacing with omniscient regulatory entity BLAKE may lead to feelings of depression, unrequited love, or worse. Then an audience plant has hysterics, a mystery patient is chased screaming through our midst, there are yet more speeches, and the show proper begins.
Or at least that’s what I think was happening: thanks to the deliberately obfuscatory language of the scripted parts of the show, it’s difficult to understand and easy to switch off as various white-coated actors lecture us on the history of the Emotional Experience Act 2032. The script’s rhetorical style is a shrewd comment on politicians’ evasiveness and vacuity – but it’s perhaps a little too realistically dull, and it certainly confused rather than enlightened me and my guest.
Once the shuffling, slightly sheepish audience has been ushered into the main Hall and addressed by Museum Director Julia Warburg (Cathy Conneff) – one of the few authority figures who convincingly inhabits her role – the fun, such as it is, begins. Alphas and Epsilons are separated (I was an Epsilon) and taken to different areas of the venue to be presented with different parts of the story. Sadly, half my group missed what may have been a vital component of the piece by having a door shut and lock in our faces, leaving us to wander aimlessly through Victorian corridors, rooms full of shooting targets, and over empty rooftops.
Had this been Masque of the Red Death (possibly Punchdrunk’s most famous production, where the company took over the whole of the BAC) this would not have been a problem: after all, the idea of immersive and interactive experiential theatre is that everybody sees different parts of the show and therefore (essentially) a different show – this also means you can go more than once and have a new experience each time.
However, for the illusion of being inside a future world to be sustained, it must be complete: this requires serious attention to detail. Stumbling across a room full of bloodstained diaries and dripping candles (Punchdrunk) is haunting and thrilling. Stumbling across a room full of startled language students who are clearly nothing to do with the production is not so good – and probably quite annoying for them, too. Though a sandbox environment such as this encourages exploration, a few DO NOT ENTER signs wouldn’t have gone amiss – even if people did ignore them.
When this sort of grand-guignol role-playing wonderland thing works, it can be genuinely mind-bending, frightening and amazing. But when it doesn’t, it’s just a bit underwhelming. The difference between the first result and the second is commitment: on the part of the audience, yes, but more importantly on the part of the actors, director, designer and everyone involved in the show.
What’s most frustrating about this piece is its incompleteness – some of the rooms are wonderfully dressed, with cartoon porno peepshows (by Flora Bradwell), unnerving specimen jars full of embodied emotions (Mariana Moranduzzo) and creepy artwork – but other aspects of the show aren’t developed at all: our sleek, stylish Welcome Packs explain nothing and the 'aptitude tests' we’re asked to complete are never scored or looked at: a telling prioritisation of form over content.
The show has a three-hour running time but only a one-hour cycle, which ends with an admittedly fantastic strobe-lit dance routine to Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy. But staying longer doesn’t seem to mean finding out more, and when I left around 9.30 I was nagged by the suspicion that actually, there wasn’t much more to find out: that the brave new world Foolish People tantalise us with on their website and Facebook page hasn’t been built, or even fully imagined – at least, not yet.
With a bit more thought (and plot), Foolish People’s new project has the potential to be great – but that potential isn’t quite realised. It’s possible that the show will grow, develop and change over the coming weeks, though, so if you’re interested, give it a fortnight to bed in and you might have a very different, and more enjoyable, Virulent Experience.