A clever, twisty plunge into the world of Victorian sleuthing.

By: May. 27, 2023

Review: SMITE: AN IMMERSIVE MURDER MYSTERY, CRYPT East London, 1892. The vicar of St Jude’s, missing for weeks, is discovered pickling away in a brine-filled barrel. A man is found hanged the next day in the nave of the same church before his body mysteriously disappears. Sometime during the following night, a woman working late in a locked tannery is butchered and then hung on a meat hook. There have been two more murders since, each with their own peculiar traits. J Division has decided to recruit a bunch of special constables (aka the audience) to help bring the murderer to justice. Is there a serial killer roving the streets? What connects these unfortunate and gruesome deaths? And who will be the next to die?

Even when watching the most engrossing period drama, there’s no getting away from the fact that your backside is planted in a comfy chair very much in the present era. Directed by Edward J.C Davies, Parchment Sword Stone’s SMITE (Society Must Investigate Terrible Events) lifts us bodily into the appropriate time and place by being taking over a converted crypt below an East End church (St Peter’s in Bethnal Green). As it did so brilliantly for the previous production, the musty Victorian vibe down there is almost a physical presence. The low doorways serve as an visual - and sometimes painful - reminder of a bygone era when men were not just men but also much shorter men (the average height of a man in the early 1870s was just 5’5’’).

Good use has been made of the venue with much to-ing and fro-ing permitted and, indeed, necessary to get to grips with this pacy story. I, for one, am glad that Davies’ admirable attempts to recreate an authentic Victorian investigation didn’t go as far as the permastench of cigarette smoke but did retain handy access to booze. Grabbing a drink, though, isn’t a completely frivolous activity: the barmaid Rosie Blight (Amber Dawn) is the daughter of the recently deceased vicar and, after some gentle probing, is ready to spill her views and a few clues.

The deployment room is where the proper plods plus us special constables led by Sergent Seán McGriel (Johnjoe Irwin) and guided by Detective Lincoln Manning (Ewan Bagshaw) can gather to view intelligence firsthand as it comes in from the field, send out bobbies to follow up on clues or survey the map of London to try and divine where the next murder will happen. Next door, we can work with the inhouse profiler Miss Quinn Michaels (Polly Waldron) to piece together what is currently known about each death from police reports and assemble facts and theories about possible suspects.

There are two wonderful touches that really make SMITE stand out. The first is having the ability to call out by dialing on a real telephone (with calls picked up by a hidden member of the cast). Want to know if the killer struck from behind or from the front? Call the coroner at Guys Hospital. Need to rope in some flatfoots to follow a suspicious vehicle? Put in a call to a neighbouring division. Getting too noisy to hear the person on the other end? Tell the entire room of actors and audience members to pipe down and, to their credit, they do.

The second is having slots in the wall through which information arrives. Responses from coroners or other divisions or witness statements are pushed through in the form of paper notes. Just when a suspect has been identified, a new document will appear which may identify a new suspect or explode a nascent theory.

Keeping up with what is going on is a challenge in itself especially as the case is being pushed forward on multiple fronts with only a few points during the evening to draw together the findings thus far. As with any immersive theatre show worth its name, there is much more than meets the eye and too much to see and explore on one visit. SMITE, though, struggles in the last third to bring us all on the final journey: unless you are very close to the action in at least one room, it is too easy to watch the story spin off into a new direction without understanding clearly just how we arrived at those conclusions.

There is a meaty running time of two hours-plus and, for the most part, the hectic pacing and constant throughput of leads and events keep us totally engaged. This, though, requires constant efforts as an audience member if only to listen in and be aware of latest developments.

SMITE is a clever, twisty plunge into the world of Victorian sleuthing with much to commend it, especially for those willing to roll up their sleeves and throw themselves into this layered experience. Ultimately, a comment from musical comedy legend Tom Lehrer comes to mind: “Life is like a sewer – what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

SMITE continues until 10 June.

Photo credit: Parchment Sword Stone


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