Leadenhall Street in East London is uniformly lined with dull grey buildings but, for the next few months, you can step off the street and into Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience – a fully-interactive guided performance, which looks fantastic but doesn’t yet deliver on some of its high-tech ambitions.
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept behind this latest immersive theatre event to arrive in the capital, back in 1978, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds concept album was released and became a best-selling success.
The double album introduced H. G. Wells’ classic Victorian science-fiction novel to a 20th-century audience using a distinctive prog-rock-meets-audiobook approach, with Richard Burton on narration duties and vocals provided by, among others, Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott.
Forty-one years later, immersive theatre company Dotdotdot has transposed Wayne’s musical masterpiece into a 21st-century immersive theatre experience that blends live performance with holographic projections, motion simulators and virtual reality.
The experience opened in London last week (31st May) and Gizmodo was invited along to the press preview night to experience the Martian invasion first-hand.
Set in a 22,000 sq ft space just a few minutes walk from Aldgate Station, the experience takes groups of up to 12 people at a time through a maze of scenes set in London in 1898, some inspired by events from Jeff Wayne’s original album and some dreamed up from scratch for this experience.
I won’t give away any of the many surprises it has in store, but you can expect an unusual astronomy lesson, a spooky safe house, a bumpy boat ride and, of course, to come face to face with one or two of the famous Martian tripods – with Jeff Wayne’s music throughout.
At the press preview night, I found that my senses were fully engaged from the get-go, as we arrived in the steampunk bar-cum-holding area – presided over by a massive, smoke blasting Martian war machine – before being led off into candlelit hallways and cobbled streets by a succession of guides who spoke to us as survivors of the great Martian invasion.
Actors informed us they’d only be breaking character in the event of a fire or some other emergency, which is par for the course at any immersive performance event, but VR is a very different proposition and has its own set of requirements.
I’m generally pretty up for these kinds of experiences in an immersive theatre setting, but when VR is thrown into the mix – which requires you to close off your natural senses from your immediate environment – being able to place a high level of trust in your hosts is essential and cannot be taken for granted.
For example, heading into the first VR segment of the experience, I ended up being pulled in several directions at once by a roomful of manic actors as they strapped me into a backpack, harness and headset, pulling my blouse halfway up my torso in the process. This would have been an ideal time for just one of the actors to consider helping me to get properly prepared and remain fully dressed.
(When we brought up the issue of consent and physical touch during the performance, and how they will be addressed in future, Dotdotdot told us that these considerations are important and will be communicated to regular participants at the point of purchase.)
Additionally, the actors would only refer to the VR headsets as ‘toppers’ which, due to the hurried and in-character delivery, left a few members of our group uncertain as to what was being talked about – which became an issue later on when we were all being shouted at to put on/take off our toppers.
We were then transported into a large virtual space where we could see the other members of our group transformed into a gaggle of Victorian refugees. Unfortunately, the motion capture technology used in this part of the experience struggled to understand the heights of our group, leading to a lot of squatting, crab-legged avatars waddling around, all of us unsure of where we were meant to be heading.
I’m aware that motion capture technologies don’t always work exactly as they’re expected to, but after having just been hurried around and shouted at by hysterical soldiers, the disorientation and confusion of this VR experience made for an uncomfortable and unrewarding few minutes.
The other instances of VR integration worked marginally better, but even then we found that several headsets simply didn’t work or others in the group had to take them off because they felt nauseous or simply uncomfortable with what was happening. This was where it became apparent that there is no ‘pause button’ for any participant who’s no longer having a good time, and the pressure not to spoil it for anyone else meant having to tolerate varying levels of discomfort as the experience rolls on.
Broadly, the experience is good fun. In its execution, it feels a lot like a good Secret Cinema or Punchdrunk Theatre production. But the key USP of this experience is the technology used throughout to heighten the immersion and it’s these elements that feel as though they still need some working out, as they currently fall short of the benchmark for immersive VR experiences that’s already been set by The Void.
Gizmodo has been informed that the event may be altered in places following the previews, so your experience could very well be different. A spokesperson at Dotdotdot told us: “ We treat our previews as an exciting opportunity for fans and press to get a first look at the experience before it officially opens, therefore we are expecting improvements to be made throughout this time.”
I’m hopeful, then, that their tech issues will be ironed out in due course. But even then, a fresh appraisal of how VR is being integrated into the performance might be necessary.
That’s why reviewing Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience is tricky.
The set design, performances and, of course, Jeff Wayne’s music all make for a fun experience, but the tech that sets it apart feels as though it needs more consideration, from the experiential design all the way through to performance.
Tickets cost from £49.50 and are available from dotdot.london