H.G. Wells was one of the foremost writers of science fiction in history, stories like The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and perhaps his most famous novel The War of The Worlds would go on to codify many of the foundational tropes of the genre. In his stories he predicted the advent of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television and something resembling the World Wide Web. However even he would be hard pressed to have foreseen Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, a bloated 70s concept album and rock opera adaptation of his story. Personally the combination of classical influenced prog and painfully high pitched lyrics about interstellar war shoots past sublime, smashes through ridiculous and ends up somewhere in ‘war crime’ territory, However the record is apparently 32nd best-selling studio album of all time in the UK so clearly my opinion is slightly off piste. Though whilst considering its commercial success it’s worth remembering that thousands of people voted for Hitler as well.
Immersive theatre company “dotdotdot” have taken this apparently beloved albatross/album and turned it into an impressive piece of hybrid theatre. Since “Punchdrunk” exploded onto the scene over a decade ago; immersive theatre has achieved an impact-sapping market saturation, but “dotdotdot” are attempting to push this immersive envelope further with the headline grabbing addition of full-visor VR. “Dotdotdot” have taken a whack at this VR malarkey before with the sadly somnambulant Sonmai Sonmai, but with this adaptation they’ve thrillingly clicked into gear. The audience goes in groups of twelve and are led through a sequence of really rather tastefully laid out rooms ranged across the 22,000 feet of the performance space: from observatories, barricaded front rooms, confessionals and rank backstreets. Each individual room has its own actor who lead you through the action. As with all immersive theatre the more you put in with your interactions the better your experience will be, but the actors seemed extremely poised and happy to go off script dealing with some of our more involved interactions. There is plenty of wit and humour besides the grim beats of the novel and even some genuine feelings of fear, particularly in a pitch dark sequence that best remains unspoiled.
The real draw of course is the aforementioned VR and during three key points you slide on the head sets and are turned loose in big set pieces which see the titanic tripods rain death down upon you. Culturally, we’re in a weird place with VR technology. Virtual Reality has been a staple of science fiction stories since the fifties and as a result, along with flying cars, cryogenic freezing and sex robots (depressingly for civilisation, sex robots seem to be the technology that is advancing the fastest), there is a certain expectation that science-fiction grade VR is a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’. Great strides have been made with projects like the Oculus Rift, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that in a few decades the kind of ‘groundbreaking’ VR materials that are available now (for grotesquely high prices) will be looked back on with the amused contempt we reserve for the cheap CGI of b-movie dreck of Megashark Vs Giant Octopus or Sharknado (the future will presumably also justifiably question why so much early 21st century entertainment revolved around badly animated sharks). VR remains a rich man’s toy, with companies and consumers wary of making the plunge out of the fear that you’ll be springing hundreds of pounds for the modern equivalent of a Betamax player.
dotdotdot’s VR gear is not exactly photorealistic, everything looks like a PS2 era videogame cutscene, but in context it’s surprisingly effective, particularly the first time you cower before a ravening metal tentacle. The unfortunate double edge to this virtual sword is that during these sections you have entire movements of the prog rock musical blasted into your poor defenceless ears. This unfortunately overwhelms any feelings of fear and wonder with the sudden need to burst into hysterical laughter. Still it must be said that there’s nothing really like this showing in London; it contains moments of groundbreaking frisson that other (and better) theatre would kill for. However at a notably pricey £49 a head (along with the ‘de rigueur’ 20 minute interval in a cocktail bar) it’s up to the individual to work out how much it’s worth it. For fans of the novel and [sigh] the musical, there’s a lot to like and kids [there’s a 12 and over age limit] should go absolutely gaga for it. Great fun, in its own way groundbreaking, but not quite out of this world.
War of the Worlds Immersive Experience
56 Leadenhall Street, London, EC3A 2BJ