A couple of summers ago my sister and I went to see Alice’s Adventures Underground. It was an immersive theatre experience in the London Vaults – the white rabbit took you through tunnels to show you different parts of wonderland and told the story of a rebellion in wonderland, of which you were a part of the narrative. It was incredible so when the opportunity arose to go to a Gatsby themed experience, we jumped at it.
The night began at a hidden location known as ‘Gatsby’s Drugstore’ which appeared to be an abandoned building, complete with insignificant exterior and a giant shuttered door. We were let in at 7.00 pm, saved from the rain of the British summer and entered into a space decorated to look like a bootleg bar. There were about fifty guests and many had come dressed up, from a man in a fedora and pinstripe suit who could have come right out of Chicago to the women in full 1920s garb with fringed dresses and feathered headbands in their hair.
There was half an hour for people to get their hands on their bootlegged G&T and talk. By 7.30 pm, Nick Carraway had made his way quietly among the audience and broke through the chatter with the opening lines of the book. We quietened down to listen, excited for the show to start.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticising any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
Daisy and Tom entered the scene, saying hello to everyone and made their way through the crowd to the bar. The doors at the back of the room opened up, I spotted Gatsby, standing on a balcony, watching over what would become his party as we were invited into the back room to enter into the past and the story.
These were the venues two main rooms; Gatsby’s drugstore where we entered and Gatsby’s mansion with a balcony on either side and rooms hidden behind the curtains upstairs. We entered and sat at tables covered with gold sequined tablecloth and mingled with the characters. The cast is small; Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, Wilson, Nick, Jordan, Gatsby and a couple others. The evening began with a little bit of storytelling, but also dancing – Jordan Baker got onto the bar and taught us how to Charleston, warming up the audience. Some people were really good. I, on the other hand, could only keep up with the steps when we were doing them slowly.
However after this, the first half of the show really slowed down. Perhaps because the space is limited to those two rooms or perhaps because we were supposed to be at one of Gatsby’s parties, very little story can be shown. It was more a matter of the audience eavesdropping into different conversations – Wilson’s attempts to buy a fancy car and make some money, Jordan telling Nick about Daisy’s past, Tom’s affair. There were a few song numbers sang by Myrtle and Daisy which seemed very much like fillers.
In an attempt to increase the amount of interaction between audience members and the Gatsby at one stage rounded up four people he called “Johnson” from the audience to help set up tea to meet Daisy. The audience members were given red aprons and helped bring set pieces into the main room, putting them where instructed – this was of course not how Gatsby wanted it at all meaning the cast rearranged it. The interactions added a lot of humour to the show but it felt incredibly long and time-filling. As a result, the emotional reunion between Daisy and Gatsby for the first time in five years after this also felt incredibly long.
Gatsby and Daisy, reunited and their passion reignited with a kiss then went off to one of the back rooms. What we didn’t realise at the time was that you can follow the characters! This happened two or three times in the night – if you follow characters you experience a different scene in the back rooms. In theory this means that different audience members get a difference experience of the show, but in practice I think you miss out on the whole story (in Alice, we saw all of the show but in small groups so you could often hear other scenes happening in the background that you would see later). Those who left the first time, for example, didn’t hear Nick and Jordan discussing Daisy and Gatsby’s history.
We caught onto this though and after the car accident (which is executed through the use of sound and flashing lights) we followed Daisy and Tom to Daisy’s bedroom. We witnessed Daisy’s hysterical response and Tom trying to calm her down. About five of us were tasked by Tom to sit on the bed with Daisy and try to keep her calm. This was pretty fun as she kept asking for advice – should she choose Tom or Gatsby? and how could she live with herself after running someone over? This interactive portion was much closer to what you’d want from the event as opposed to setting tea from Gatsby to fill time. (None of us were very good at comforting Daisy though and when she started worrying about her daughter my response was “well where has she been this whole time?” – my inner lit student came out, Daisy is not a good mother.)
This interaction was from the second half of the show which was much better. The pace picked up with a lot more storytelling in my opinion. In this half we saw the characters interact with each other a little bit more meaning that it felt a bit cohesive. We see the consequences of Daisy and Gatsby’s affair, we see the incredibly tense outing that Tom, Daisy, Nick, Jordan and Gatsby take and we see the infamous delusion that Gatsby is living under – the idea that Daisy never loved Tom.
I have read, seen and studied The Great Gatsby so I was able to follow what was happening quite easily, but because it wasn’t straightforward storytelling, I think it may have been difficult to keep up. Good storytelling means that you shouldn’t need to have had any exposure to a previous medium to understand the story in a new one. And, as expected, you lose a lot of the nuance of the book in favour of the pizzazz of the party. In fact, my favourite parts were probably when Nick bookended the performance with narration lifted straight from the novel.
For a first immersive theatre experience it was pretty good but after seeing Alice I had much higher expectations. As Alice’s Adventure’s Underground is back in town I would recommend seeing that over Gatsby. Although it is a little pricier, it’s a far superior experience. But hey, if you want to get dressed up, get a little drunk, talk to literary characters and watch a show all in one go, this show covers it.
NB If you do end up going, we were charged for postage for the tickets and didn’t end up getting any! Kinda cheeky, so watch out.