The Swell Mob
August 1-12, 14-26 (19.45)
Underground I went as if entering Hades itself, down the steps and into the ground and through a grimy, dusty alley past contorted figures and raggedy dressed waifs and into a bustling, raucous gin den. At first I thought I was in some kind of bizarre Victorian theme-park, a kind of Westworld for the pox ravaged dandy in us all but it gradually became apparent that this was a far stranger and more sinister place than my first estimations. The background noise of music and chatter added to the queasy sense of unease making me feel as if I was already drunk. The lighting was low and helped create a dream-like ambience.
At first I stood around uncertain of what to do. Should I wait for something to happen? It soon became clear that although the characters will approach and engage with you if you stand around uncertainly the more you involved yourself in the action the more you would get out of it. It didn’t take me long to make some new friends. I chatted with the evangelical Evelyn who read to me from her Bible and flirtatiously anointed me with water from her tankard, and with Rose, the kindly ex-ballet dancer. I watched a performance from the vampish singer Madam Vestres and played a game of cards whose rules seemed far too complex to ever win. I joined in the dance to an old music hall number, encouraged by a fey young dandy. Though some of these characters initially appeared friendly there was usually a catch involving the play money we had been given at the door or sometimes a ‘favour’. Some of the characters such as the emotionally unstable musician Wolfgang or the impish Louisa seemed a little unhinged and there was a haunted feel to many of them which occasionally crept to the surface especially when The Master appeared. A grotesque little one eyed puppet he hovered around in the background keeping everyone – myself included ( I was chastised for being ‘insubordinate’ ) – in check and making sure they pay their debts. Speaking of debts I lost all my money in a rigged bare-knuckle boxing match between Amadeus and medicine man Dr Cornelious. I almost got myself into debt with sinister debt-dealer Peggy but was saved from a similar fate to the other poor beleaguered souls by the advise of artist, Alexander who drew me a lovely portrait – extra for the eyes – hurriedly as they called final orders.
I hope people will leave The Swell Mob, excited and enthralled by the world that we have created, my wish is that they will have had an experience truly unique to them alone
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When I was returned back to the real world I was left with a sense of bewilderment the same as a mortal who’d spent an evening with the fairies might feel. For the show had been truly magical. A dark, sinister magic but one that was certainly spellbinding. Both the sets and costumes gave the place an atmosphere that hinted at a Victorian past without being so specific to time or place. We were in some strange sunken world beyond the ravages of time it seemed– a kind of purgatory in which these damned souls were forever doomed to repeat the same acts. The attention to detail was fantastic from the pewter tankards used at the bar to the printed play money. Nothing was allowed to break the spell least of all the actors who never for a second broke character. In fact one of the wonderful things about the show was that it was almost entirely improvised with the performers responding directly to the audience, talking to them, engaging them in conversation. No two performances would be alike. It meant that we ceased to feel in any way like we were witnessing a mere theatrical performance. In fact it would be fair to say that this show expects much from its audience. It’s not for the shy or the faint-hearted and it certainly isn’t something you can sit back and simply watch – you really do have to join in. The fact that the actors are clearly giving it their all with such conviction compels you to do the same and suspend your disbelief at it all. If you fancy spending an evening in a strange and seedy Victorian dream-world full of beautifully bizarre characters then come and join the Swell Mob for this really is immersive theatre at its best.