The Gunpowder Plot at Tower Vaults – Review – ★★
Overpriced and hobbled by glitchy tech, this immersive experience is nevertheless a diverting romp around the Tower Vaults.
Remember, remember, the 5th of.. June? Yes, that’s right, Guy Fawkes Night arrives early this year with the arrival of the immersive Gunpowder Plot experience in the Tower Vaults.
The team behind Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds: The Immersive Experience, Layered Reality, have partnered with the Historic Royal Palaces for their latest mash-up of live performance and virtual reality. The subject matter is ripe for this kind of treatment, and the venue could only be topped if it was somehow possible to set up an entertainment venue beneath parliament (perhaps Boris looked into it during lockdown) – as it is, the Tower Vaults space feels just the kind of dark and mysterious place that Fawkes and his coconspirators might have skulked and plotted back in the autumn of 1605.
The experience itself is a kind of Crystal Maze-esque, Punchdrunk-lite walk (and occasional scurry) between scenes spread throughout a maze of excellently dressed 17th Century recreations: dank prison cells, underground chambers, priest holes, and even the top of the Tower of London itself. Audiences, in groups of a dozen or so, are led/cajoled and informed by a troupe of conspirators, guards, informers, double-agents and the like, enthusiastically played by a cast of game performers. And, at intervals, you’re invited to don a VR headset for some more expansive (though, of course, actually static) adventures.
All sounds fun doesn’t it? Throw in the bar at the beginning, serving themed cocktails, and an interval tavern serving ale by the tankard, and the possibility of booking with friends for a group experience, and this all sounds like a hit in the making.
Alas, there are some issues. First, the elephant in the dungeon: the price. While tickets can be found for £40 – and this really is the maximum this show should cost – many ‘performances’ are only available for higher entry fees. Standard tickets even the best part of three months from now are selling for £60, and in some cases you’re looking at £70 per person – and that’s before you look at the VIP pricing, which reaches £110. Undoubtedly The Gunpowder Plot costs a lot to produce, but these prices are eye-watering, and what you get for your money really can’t compare with – say – a decent West End play or musical. Sure, this is not cheap and cheerful experience, but nor is it jaw-dropping entertainment involving must-see performances.
Second: while there performers are totally committed to their roles, everything feels just the wrong side of hammy – perhaps a fault which lies with the writing and direction. The emphasis, presumably, has been placed heavily on engaging with audience members, but there are awkward echoes of Ed Tudor-Pole (an acquired taste) – it all just feels a bit cheesy and unconvincing.
And then, there’s the VR. Look, if you go in with low-ish expectations, you’ll be just fine. The thing is, The Gunpowder Plot experience is billed as deploying “the latest digital technology”, and you’re told that you’ll “make a dangerous attempt to escape the Tower” and “make a daring journey along the Thames towards the Houses of Parliament”. So, with those expectations in mind, the reality can only really be described as a disappointment. The VR graphics are functional at best – think computer game graphics from 15 years ago – and the kit is temperamental, a grey screen of doom (or at least, blankness) appearing if you knock a sensor while trying to get the headset in place (if you wear glasses, you may struggle to get comfortable), or white flashes if you move your head too quickly. There are freezes and judders too, which make it hard to stay ‘in the moment’. Those dangerous attempts at escape and journeys along the Thames are underwhelming, and hardly a great advert for VR technology. The most interesting thing about the VR is that it allows for the casting of Tom Felton, who can appear nightly in your goggles whilst also treading the boards at The Criterion in 2:22 (tickets from £15).
Finally, for an immersive experience which repeatedly encourages its audience to consider the choices they make, and the actions they take, there is a disappointing finale which makes clear that there is only one path through this experience – you’re not really in control of how things turn out, or what you see.