BWW Review: VARIANT 31
In the heart of central London, a seven-building, 35-floor, 42,000 sq ft adventure awaits brave travellers. Putting you in the shoes of your favourite action character, participants must navigate rough terrain, darkened corridors and fog-filled chambers - all while trying to avoid meeting infected creatures, which will attack.
By using various skills, you can choose to work together or move forward solo. The aim is to collect points, avoid being attacked by zombies, and survive the experience. Hunt or be hunted - the game is yours to play.
Immersive theatre has come under scrutiny recently, as concerns for consent and care have been raised. Safeguarding strategies have been implanted, enhancing the safety of everyone involved. This is of course completely necessary, however, one of the - many - issues I have with this production is with its rule you are told upon entering the space: "This is a full contact experience. You WILL be touched."
Now, there are options to buy a non-touch ticket at registration, however these are strictly based on availability. The problem is, it's never made explicit what these forms of touch are. When I receive my briefing from a doctor-esque character, I am lightly patted on the shoulder; for me, in terms of my own personal boundaries, this is absolutely fine. But then, in the experience, an actor playing a zombie fully launched themselves at me, grabbing and pushing down on my collarbone incredibly hard - thus causing a few bruises to be found the following morning.
It goes without saying that this is unacceptable, and even though I was fine mentally after this, having somebody run up to you in the dark and put their hands tightly around your neck isn't pleasant, to say the least. This form of contact is not only aggressive and unconsented, but it is also potentially triggering for some people who are survivors of some form of assault.
And this presents a serious problem in terms of ethics. Another rule is set up, saying that: "PATIENTS MAY NOT TOUCH ANY DOCTOR OR CLINICAL STAFF DURING THE TRIAL FOR ANY REASON." So, if you have an incident like the one I had, you might feel pressured to allow it to exist, for fear of breaking the rules and being removed from the show. The code of behaviour that's been set up is quite dangerous, and needs investigating and amending.
Other issues I had were the fact that a bottle of water received during the game was taken off me by a stage manager, posing as a doctor. In an incredibly sweaty, high-adrenaline and intense game, it's strange that the production is preventing people from staying hydrated. Again I felt like I couldn't challenge this in fear of being removed. Also, the quality of the performances were hit and miss. There were some actors that fully embodied the solider role, whereas others felt terribly forced. And finally, the security guards dotted at random places - although completely necessary - really take you out of the action, as they are not only out of character, but come across as incredibly rude.
There is so much potential in this show. The game itself is quite thrilling and the technology is extraordinary. Upon entry you're given an electronic wristband, which you then scan against varying glowing objects to gain points. The aim is to get the most points out of your group - something that I achieved. There wasn't a prize per say, but it did feel good. Your vest glows green to symbolise perfect health; get attacked and you turn orange meaning you must get to a healing desk. If time passes and you don't do this, your vest will be red and you need to find a doctor to be revived, but your point count returns to zero. There are riddles to solve and a sequence of numbers to find, but the point of this adventure isn't really clear.
And with all technology, there are limits and I notice people's vests turn orange when no zombie-creature touches them. Obviously that's frustrating for them. And for all the money that's been spent on the scanning and the healing devices, I can't see why they have decided to give toy guns that look and sound like a five-year olds Christmas present. When shooting, they clumsily click and it's all a bit naff. It would have been great to have some form of target on each zombie, meaning the game would have been harder and there'd be a sense of achievement when bypassing the danger.
This experience isn't for everyone; it is specifically tailored for people who love live-action roleplay, those that are ready to be thrown in at the deep end of immersive action. These were my favourite type of person to experience the game with. I really felt like they made it more immersive than the actors who were playing soldiers. Sadly, they weren't the majority. The majority were people who didn't seem prepared for what they experienced, and also people that were just a bit confused by it all.
Design wise, the space is spectacular, and the company have spared no expense in terms of budget. Everything from the damp on the walls to the dust in every room, the smells that repulse and the sounds that disturb. Roberta Volpe and Jamie Simmons' art direction knocks it out of the park, and it really is a triumph in terms of composition. But, despite this, my main issue is that the care for audience doesn't seem properly thought through, and for that reason, I couldn't ever encourage anyone to visit Variant 31.
Photo: Variant 31