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CROOKS 1926 at King William IV, London | Review

Crooks, courtesy of Michael Kaltenborn.
Crooks, courtesy of Michael Kaltenborn.

I had not, until last night, had the pleasure of experiencing COLAB Theatre’s work and, having now done so, I am mourning my wasted time.

Crooks: 1926 is the latest work from COLAB Theatre, and the first produced from their new, dedicated home base, promising clever game mechanics and an exciting narrative and this production delivered both in buckets.

On our entrance into the working-class pub that would serve as our venue for the night, the atmosphere and sense of foreboding is built quickly and effectively by the cast as trade union identities and secret tasks are distributed. The game is afoot.

The set design is all-encompassing with no effort spared to transform it into the quintessential East End working men’s’ boozer, with local papers and betting slips strewn across busy counter-tops. The lighting and sound work throughout help to maintain the gritty, backstreet feel.

We find ourselves in the heart of the McDonald family’s turf as they mourn the loss of patriarch, Robert. A moment of song and heartfelt thanks set a sombre mood until we’re interrupted by the head of a rival gang, played loathsomely by the wonderful Tom Black, calling in apparent debts by morning. Black reappears throughout the evening in a multitude of roles, each distinct and memorable.

The joint heads of the McDonald clan, since the passing of their father, are brother Charlie and William, Wag and Wal to their friends. Played by Angus Woodward and Simon Pothecary respectively, the brothers McDonald competently lead our gang with a combined sense of anxiety and authority. Calls to action established, the night bursts into action, with the audience flitting between planning heists, small cons and recruiting an assortment of ‘contacts’ to get the dirty work done. The sheer range of games designed and engineered for this production is very impressive with everything from horse-racing to pickpocketing explored and gamified. The cast lead the audience through each game with clear instruction and the sense of freedom that’s at the heart of all great immersive theatre.

One of my primary tasks involves the deciphering of clues on a hunt to find the errant Rev, one of the energetic and wonderfully witty Benjamin Chamberlain’s almost countless roles of the evening.

Chamberlain has an interesting knack for appearing to be absolutely everywhere at once, no doubt a boon when playing upwards of five characters in a busy pub environment – a task at which he thrives.

The last of the active cast is Holli Dillon, who plays Alice Diamond, leader of the all-female gang ‘The Forty Thieves’. Dillon’s no-nonsense Diamond is equal parts matron and murderess, a delightfully dangerous woman from the get-go. Her influence on the boys is tantamount to their success, just as the obvious chemistry shared between all members of the cast ensures the audience are all kept onboard from start to finish.

In all, this is very polished, well thought out work with so much going on that I’m already planning a return trip. Without doubt, Crooks: 1926 is the best piece of immersive theatre I’ve experienced in years and I am going to ensure I continue to experience their work at every opportunity going forward.

From puzzle solving to strategic planning, gambling to escape room-style scenarios, I find it near impossible to conceive of a person who will not be able to find something that grabs their attention fully and, to the credit of COLAB’s wonderful production, holds it by the throat until it’s willing to pay up. An absolute rollercoaster. Do not miss it… or I might have to ‘take you outside’.

5 Star Rating

Review by Ben Powell

Plunge deep into the gritty, criminal underworld of 1920s London at COLAB’s new immersive experience, CROOKS 1926. This innovative company will be staging their most ambitious project to date; game mechanics collide with a pulsing, hair-raising narrative giving audiences the chance to throw themselves into one family’s brutal battle for supremacy in the heart of Elephant and Castle.

In a world where nothing is certain, violence is rampant, and bargains are made to be broken, the audience will have complete autonomy to shape their own thrilling experience. While some might to choose to orchestrate a grand territorial takeover of London or broker an alliance with The West End Boys, others might ‘go it alone’ by scheming with a devious traitor. The choice lies solely with the audience meaning that no two shows are the same.

Director Bertie Watkins
Producer Ben Chamberlain
Venue Manager Nikolay Uzanov

Alice Diamond – Holli Dixon
Charles ‘Wag’ McDonald – Angus Woodward
William ‘Wal’ McDonald – Simon Pothecary
Sabini, Jonny Longlegs, Game Master – Tom Black
Rev Phillips, D.I Davidson, Game Master – Ben Chamberlain

Running Time 2 hours and 30 mins
Twitter @CoLab_Theatre #CROOKS1926

Performance Dates Thursday 12th February – Sunday 29th March 2020, 7:30pm
Location King William IV
16 Harper Road, Elephant and Castle,
London, SE1 6AD

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