Uncharacteristically, last Sunday lunchtime found me in a pub near Old Street. I was there to meet Webcowgirl for a trip to the theatre – or more accurately a trip to a road in Hackney where theatre would happen to us. Specifically, we were going to see an ‘immersive theatre experience’, a combined production of Punchdrunk and the Arcola theatre called The Uncommercial Traveller, based on a Dickens non-fiction book of the same name. However, it was raining so hard we kept looking out of the window in the expectation of seeing animals parading two by two down the road; and we thought the show we were due to see was going to be an outdoor one. We came very close to just staying in the pub, to be honest.
But the rain cleared, umbrellas were procured, and we recovered our enthusiasm. Buses were caught, and we arrived in time – in time to just miss our show. No latecomers allowed. Luckily, the show was held every half hour and we were able to squeeze ourselves in to the 1.30pm showing.
As it turned out, the experience was an indoor one. And genuinely immersive it was. Sunday was the final day of the show, so I shall feel free to reveal exactly what it consisted of: we were ushered into the dimly lit front room of a terraced house done out as a Victorian soup kitchen – probably based on the Whitechapel Self-Supporting Cooking Depôt as described by Dickens. Each of us was directed to a table at which sat a Victorian character, ready to chat, and cups of free soup were distributed.
My table held a shabbily dressed woman mending a hat. She introduced herself (I think her name was Agnes), asked our names, and began to tell us about herself and answer our questions. She mended hats for a living. She had been employed in a factory, but since her alcholic father died she had worked from home in order to care for her elderly and bedridden mother; but she sometimes sneaked away to come to the soup depot, to have some time that was her own. She knew the histories of all the other habitues (“You see the one at that table? She’s an actress. You know what that means,”) and confided that she usually added a ‘tipple’ to her soup. She offered us some, but we refused. (Was it really gin? I should have said yes – first rule of improvisation.)
I was enjoying the sense of having stumbled into a house from 150 years ago for its own sake, but there was more. The room went dark, and the four Victorians suddenly rose up, stood in silence, and slowly sank down again; I felt a thrill up my spine. Our lady began to pack up her hat materials as the other tables were led by their Victorian towards the back of the house. Our lady told us that she had a secret weighing on her mind. Could she trust us? We – the three of us at the table – promised that she could.
(I suddenly feel guilty for writing what I’m about to write. Should you keep a promise you’ve made to a fictional character? I think I shall have to consider the promise also fictional.)
The lady led us to the rear of the house, down a narrow flight of stairs, and into a dark cupboard. The three of us stood at one end with one small lantern between us while she crouched down at the other end, another small lantern illuminating her wrinkled and troubled face. Another thrill crept down my spine at the sight. She told us that her father used to hit her mother. One day she had come home to find her mother cowed and beaten, and had told him to stop. Drunk, he had fallen and smashed his head on the fireplace.
The problem was, she said, that they were going to pull the slums down. And what would she do when they found the body? Who would care for her mother if she went to prison? Where was the body then? asked one of our party. She was directed to pull up the floorboard and there, beneath our feet, lay our lady’s father.
That was the end of the ‘show’. She thanked us for letting her get her secret off her chest, and emerged into the light to swap stories with the others. (Webcowgirl will have hers up soon.)
It was only a 20 minute experience, but sometimes that’s just right for something so immersive. It was certainly an experience well worth having. I suspect that when I’m eighty, I shall remember it as real and confuse my grandchildren by talking about the time I met a woman who mended hats and had a body buried under the stairs.