The West at COLAB Tavern review: Nothing theatrical about this brainless cowboy show

·3-min read
 (Handout)
(Handout)

Punchdrunk has a lot to answer for. The pioneers of immersive theatre continue to spawn inferior imitations, of which this brainless cowboy show from COLAB Theatre is the latest and lamest. It involves stumbling around a disused pub in Elephant and Castle for 150 minutes, carrying out childishly pointless tasks for four hammy actors spouting fatuous Western clichés.

I missed the recent immersive Peaky Blinders show that received utterly savage reviews, but I’d bet this is worse. There’s hardly any plot, no characterisation and insulting set dressing. Like many such productions it promises participation but treats the audience like cattle, to be prodded from room to room. At one point I considered shooting my way out with the cap gun I’d been given.

The premise: we’re in Olverton, a one-family town since a sandstorm levelled everything. Poppa is the sheriff, Momma the mayor, and son Francis the priest. Or maybe he’s a member of the Snakebite Bandits who robbed a train, killing three people. Who knows? Who cares?

After a clunky preamble, last night’s 20-odd audience members – precisely two took up the invitation to come in Western garb – were left in the bar for half an hour. It felt insulting at the time, but on reflection, I missed an opportunity to cudgel my brain into oblivion. Then we were divided into deputies, town rebuilders and suspects, and spun off to different rooms. This process was repeated around a couple of chaotic, everyone-in set pieces.

 (Handout)
(Handout)

Writer and director Bertie Watkins doesn’t even offer the basic puzzles or engagement of an escape-room adventure: instead, we were asked to draw pictures, or repeat things the actors told us, or make up the story ourselves. Students of the Stanford Prison experiment might be interested to know that when asked for suggestions of where the action should go, most of my fellow-immersees proposed a lynching.

Against my inclination I engaged with the cast a couple of times to break through buttock-clenchingly embarrassing lacuna. When Francis led us in a group confession – mortifying, no one responded – I told him I’d shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Later I invented an outlaw named Brown Paper Pete, wanted for rustling. “You’ve got a good poker face,” one actor said to me. No, partner: that’s a scream with a lid on it.

The performers stumble over their words, regularly run out of steam, and ad lib jokes about Paul Newman and Gary Numan (look ‘em up, kids) and pegging (look it up, grandpa). The lighting’s way too low, the soundtrack – ranging from Hank Williams to Ennio Morricone to Dick Dale – too loud and there’s the constant risk of getting twatted by a swinging saloon door. There’s nothing theatrical about this, and it doesn’t even work as one of those dumbass ‘experiences’ that appeal to God knows who. Just awful.

COLAB Tavern to Oct 1, colabtheatre.co.uk