A lot of gory events have occurred since the London Dungeon first opened its doors 39 years ago. Around that time, Fred and Rose West were carrying out their nasty brand of business; Peter Sutcliffe was making his mark as the Yorkshire Ripper, and more recently, a whole bunch of people ate horse. Despite this, Merlin Entertainments has stuck to what it knows best: The charm and kitsch of London's past.
Now situated on the South Bank, between the London Eye and SEA LIFE London Aquarium, the location couldn't be more central to the capital's tourist hub. According to Merlin, the move cost £20 million, but was it worth the burnt notes?
Walking into the flame-framed entrance, we were greeted by a quartet of jovial costumed ye olde Londoners who slide you into the mood for fun by singing, jeering, eavesdropping, heckling, and just generally interacting with the prospective audience in a suitably brash manner. Being opening night, we were welcomed with copious amounts of sparkling wine (for the nerves), or elderflower cordial (for the sensibles), and ushered through to a smellpod-enhanced, dank, dark alleyway, where we were asked to wait for a short while.
Without wanting to give away too many of the new twists and turns, our group of 30 was led past the holes in the wall that have a tempting sign to "insert hand here"; doors that shake on their hinges as you pass them, and a sign informing us not to bring any "Flashy boxes" into the performance areas. Hmm, could they mean cameras?
Ushered past the live rats and cockroaches into a simulation lift, we were then whisked around ghoulish sights which included Henry the 8th (played by Brian Blessed via a 3D projection -- coincidentally and thrillingly, we were in the same tour group that night); Mrs Lovett (not played by Helena Bonham Carter, before you ask) and Sweeney Todd, who simulates cutting the audience's hair far too realistically for my taste. Old-timers like Jack the Ripper and Guy Fawkes still prove to be crowd-pleasers, but my personal favourite was the medieval surgery, in which the doctor's assistant gleefully disembowels a corpse and subsequently unleashes leeches upon an unwitting audience.
While the well-known names certainly caused a few hairs to stand on end, one of the greatest things about this show were the other "attractions." A boat ride winding through the bowels of the building; a maze of mirrors; a very disorientating optical illusion tunnel (especially when one has been force fed alcohol!), and more terrifyingly, a dark drop ride going through three floors, all in the name of simulating a hanging at the gallows.
With hearts still pumping, we were finally shown the most horrifying view of the night -- the gift shop prices.
A huge amount of work has obviously gone into the creation of the revamped London Dungeon, even going as far as new 'smells' being created for the attraction including 'plague', 'rat', 'faeces' and 'dirty Thames water'. Wonder if they distilled it from the actual Thames?
Coming from a theatre-tech background, I entered the new London Dungeon feeling skeptical that they could succeed with their aim of scaring me. However, I'm pleased to report there were some genuinely unnerving and unexpected moments, and more importantly, I was kept entertained for the full 90 minutes of the tour.
While regular visitors to the Dungeon will only see the 3D projection of Brian Blessed rather than the big guy himself, those at the opening night (which included, erm, a nice selection of reality TV stars) were treated to on-theme tankards of honey ale; a taster of some of Mrs Lovett's pies (thankfully minus the human meat), and afterwards, a nightclub in the dungeons with a performance by The Risk.
Tickets are a scary £24.60 for adults and £19.20 per child, but if you buy online in advance, they're a tad bit cheaper.