REVIEW | CROOKS
Within moments of arriving outside the closed shutters on a quiet Borough backstreet we’re approached by men – they want the password, and once we’ve given it we’re in. It’s an old carpet factory, perfect for the sense of claustrophobia and dark dealings that CROOKS aims to create. The atmosphere is charged; the old lift creaks and clanks as we go down. There’s door upon door leading who knows where (if we go snooping, we’re told, they’ll f*cking kill us, so I resist the urge). We’re split into teams and throughout the next 90 minutes we’re tasked with extracting information from a bent rozzer, swapping two heavy, powdery briefcases over, playing a hand of Blackjack with the Don, scheming with his fur-coated wife and then slipping a vial of poison into a lurking glass of whiskey. It’s great entertainment, even if the pauses between each “scene” are a little drawn out in the dark, thumping downstairs saloon.
The script is tight and entertaining, full of brio and Clint Eastwood-style grizzle. The cast have been incredibly well-selected and are clearly seasoned in improv, never afraid to step back and allow the action to run its merry course. The many action sequences are legitimately threatening and nicely choreographed. Above all the use of space is this show’s real strength – the movement of each group from room to room and through interconnecting doors didn’t feel like organised fun, and retained that essential variety.
How and when the story pans out is entirely dependent on the choices made by its 40-odd spectators. ER caught up with Bertie Watkins, founder of CoLab and writer of CROOKS, to chat about the inspiration for a performance that puts its audience at centre-stage, night after night. “I’m trying to create a show that completely wraps around the audience,” he says. “We are allowing there to be several protagonists within this piece, as it’s always difficult in promenade shows to allow people to have a cathartic journey with a character. So how we’ve combatted that is by making every character have their own journey, and it’s up to the audience to choose who they want to side with and thus see the show through that person’s eyes. Sometimes people are rowdy and interact at every point possible – sometimes they just want to observe and the narrative unfolds around them. It’s the audience’s night – that’s the note I constantly give all the actors.”
Immersive theatre’s been on the rise for some time now: “I think the reason this is dramatically expanding is because of something I call ‘protagonist culture,’” says Watkins. “We have got to a technological point where the majority of people (especially people attending our shows) live out a separate life online where they are the protagonist. They are finding it more and more difficult to be empathetic to characters on screen or stage, so that’s why we’re changing it around, to put the audience in the middle of the situations, so they can react the way they want to or would in that situation.” He smirks. “A bit like saucy role-play, but with less sauce.”
CROOKS is on at a secret location in Borough until Friday, May 20. Tickets cost £22. Visit www.colabtheatre.co.uk for full listings.