After enjoying our experience a few months ago at CoLab Theatre’s Hostage, it didn’t take much convincing to get a group together for their new performance, Crooks. This one’s entirely separate from their three-part spy series and revolves around infiltrating a Cockney criminal gang and bringing down “the Don”.
A few words on a webpage and a slightly cryptic voicemail in a YouTube video was all the background we had, so we turned up in South London not really knowing what to expect. One thing was clear from the ticketing system: this would be a much bigger group than last time round. Where before there had been a bunch of time slots with six people per show, now there were just the two performances a night, and around 40 tickets on offer, although there was a suggestion of being split into groups.
When we rocked up just before the start there was already a large crowd assembling, which was a bit of a disappointment. Hostage had been clandestine and intimate from the start, whereas this felt like we were being treated a bit like cattle – rounded up and processed. Plus, the Cockney gang members, wandering round with a clipboard, ticking off names, didn’t really fit the illusion.
Once inside, though, the clipboard disappeared and the performance proper began. We were all going undercover in the Don’s criminal organisation, flooding it with policemen in the hope that we could overpower it and take it down. The Don’s a cutthroat kind of guy, though, so we had to be careful – if you messed with him, he would likely “fucking kill ya”. They might have said that the safe word wouldn’t be used, but this was going to be in-your-face drama, and right from that beginning they tested out how far the audience was willing to go with them.
True to their prediction, the safe word went unused, but boy did a lot of people look ill at ease. Actually, twice during the performance I felt distinctly uncomfortable with what was happening, but I think that’s the right balance. This isn’t meant to be easy-access theatre in a plush velvet seat. This is gritty (well, by my standards) immersive street drama that’s meant to raise your adrenaline a bit. And it did.
The details of the show will have to remain secret for fear of spoiling others’ experiences. It was cleverly constructed around a central nightclub location where we mingled with other participants and interacted with the actors (as well as being able to buy drinks!). Every ten or fifteen minutes, we’d be taken off in a small group to a particular mini-show or to experience a set piece.
This was where the real strength of the performance lay – they’d constructed a set of very different experiences. One was a clandestine mission with a mixture of something almost puzzly, others were set performances from principle actors. Some were ad hoc one-on-one interactions with the cast, while others involved the group acting as a team.
At the end they brought it all together with a good, but not amazing, finale, that left us slightly uncertain as to whether the show was over or not. We stood and chatted for a few more minutes just in case, but then wandered off into the night.
As is typical in my experiences of immersive theatre, it took a while to process it all afterwards, but my initial reaction hasn’t changed hugely. Comparing it to Hostage, this show was far more consistent with good performances throughout, but it didn’t reach the highs of the earlier production, nor deliver such a good finale. The group was pretty split on which they preferred but, for me, this came off second best.
I’d still recommend it, though. If they release more tickets, as they’ve suggested they will, get on down and give it a butcher’s.
We headed over to Katzenjammers, a bierkeller just outside Borough Market. It’s loud and lively but, regardless of whether that’s your thing, they serve great food. Most of the group went for some form of sausage, as you’d expect, but I defied convention and went for an excellent – and huge – Wiener schnitzel. Would definitely recommend it if you’re in the area.