Immersive intervention on a budget will still stretch your imagination.
Discovered by word of mouth, an email, tweet or something found by the side of the road. I somehow found myself alerted to a new performance piece happening just off Salford Crescent. Peel Park Asylum promises Immersive Theatre for the Brave created by enthusiastic newcomers Moonstruck Me. There are no tickets on sale, instead an appointment is booked through email, in an enticing exchange of taut formal text. (There’s also a website for the mythical psychiatric organisation at the heart of the work).
Simply arriving at Peel Park is an excellent immersing experience. The campus grounds feel a long way from the University they belong to, rather they are just the right type of shape and imposing grandeur to take you some ways to Shutter Island. We’re no longer on Salford Crescent, and doubt as to the return of the no. 37 bus back to Manchester is just starting to set in. In short, the place is a gift; oozing charm and character – with a hint of Jack Nicholson’s mad eyed smile.
An experience for one, this promenade piece plays out as a mix of walking tour and amusement park ride. After signing in and leaving your worldly possessions with an orderly, you find yourself disconcertingly kitted out in a patient’s gown. Led on a meandering tour of the building you happen upon a number of semi-scripted interactions – a test here, an interview there – it’s pleasantly unsettling: meeting familiar archetypes and finding yourself in unfamiliar situations. You’re never quite sure of who you might meet, and you occasionally find that the one you’re meeting is you.
Each of these moments aches to branch off to become a rewarding, personalised experience – but the interactions struggle to free themselves from their script. It never really feels like you can contribute to the story, and too frequently I felt ‘acted at’ – a video game character in a cut-scene, waiting for my role to start.
The company has huge imagination, and without the budget or time for the minutely detailed set dressing of a Punchdrunk show, or the sheer volume of volunteers or co-creators needed to generate the roller-coaster of You Me Bum Bum Train, they do succeed in drawing you into the story. Many moments are intriguing, funny, spooky or even a little scary (there’s nothing quite like being blindly wheeled down corridors and stairwells – everywhere feels like a precipice), but the overall pace and acting choices never allow complete immersion.
There are missed opportunities, too. The small cast work well to create the numerous characters, but with more orchestration I’m sure more than one audience could be simultaneously taken through the piece; blurring the boundaries between performer and participant, performance and reaction. Similarly, in some of the rooms the audience member’s entrance is clearly taken as a cue to ‘begin acting’. Allowing these moments to breathe, to carry some weight before diving into narrative would enhance the experience and let the piece really live.
As a first outing this is an excellent starting point, and the team have clearly worked hard and taken a brilliant leap of faith.
More companies could and should be creating this kind of work.
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