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Notwithstanding the slight confusion of staging anything involving The Gunpowder Plot on a balmy June night, I trotted along to the Tower of London’s newest attraction yesterday preparing to be amazed.
Through a mix of VR headsets and clever staging, the audience is put into the shoes of your bog-standard seventeenth century Catholic during the age of gunpowder treason and plot. You’re being persecuted for your beliefs, and you’re in the Tower of London for the simple crime of your religion – that is, until a mysterious person breaks you out.
If you want to stay at large, they tell you, you need to infiltrate Guy Fawkes’ ring of plotters and decide whether you want to dob them in or stay loyal to the cause of blowing up Parliament over the course of a roughly 90-minute show.
I confess, our group decided to betray the plotters in favour of the Crown (it was the Jubilee last weekend, after all), though how much of an impact you have on the way this famous historical event plays out during the experience is debatable.
This isn’t a museum, so to any reserved Brits shy of getting involved, look away now. The cast interact directly with you, asking you to decipher codes, duck to get past invisible guards and hide in cubby holes to avoid being spotted by priest hunters.
For my awkward group of attendees, it took until about halfway through the experience for us to properly get into the spirit of the thing – an attitude I suspect may be shared by most Brits, unless they’ve had a visit to ye olde taverne in advance.
The staging, though, is immaculate: the room of a Jacobean house, for example, looks disturbingly realistic, as do the clever sound effects that make you think that you’re one step away from being caught by Protestant zealots.
The star of the show, of course, is digitised Harry Potter alumnus Tom Felton (he is not one of the IRL actors, since he is currently treading a different set of boards in 2:22 A Ghost Story in the West End), and he acquits himself admirably as Guy Fawkes, spitting poison at the king with great conviction over the course of the roughly twenty minutes we see him. However, it’s hard to shake off the impression that you’re watching Draco Malfoy mouthing the lines – which, I imagine, the producers hope will pull the punters in, so all to the good.
The one place where the show falls down at this early stage is the VR. My headset repeatedly glitched to white, denying me precious time staring at an imaginary (and impressive) London skyscape, disrupting the experience and making me feel rather cheated.
On the occasions it did work, however, it elevated the whole experience to something rather special. It’s hard not to feel awe while being rowed across the Thames in seventeenth-century London, looking at London Bridge on your right and a galleon on your left: once the teething troubles are sorted out, the VR experience will likely turn out to be the highlight.
Tower of London, booking to September 4; gunpowderimmersive.com