*Look, there’s a load of spoilers in here, so if you haven’t seen Heist yet and you’ve got tickets, don’t be a plonker and save this for afters, alright?*
Tieclip: There was seven of us in the bar, and we didn’t know no names. Well, obviously we knew who each other were, and there was a bloke with sandy hair who looked the dead spit of Andy Field, but the other four – strangers. Big fellow poured us some drinks and gave us his name – Onestep. Then he gave us names – Heartbeat, Cogs, Kumquat, Osmond, Acoustic, then there Tieclip (that’s me) and Underwire (that’s her). And we were all there to do a job, we knew that. We just didn’t know what it was yet…
Underwire: No. You’re not calling me ‘Underwire’ for this whole thing, absolutely no way. And speak properly.
Tieclip: Alright, alright. Well I’m keeping mine… So this is Heist, the next major immersive experience at the Theatre Delicatessen space on Marylebone High Street. Heist is a playful and gamified experience. You and a handful of others are tasked with planning and executing a complex heist, dodging security cameras, outwitting guards and scouring the building for clues that will get you in, get you the prize and get you out. That’s the idea, anyway, and it’s a credit to the team that they largely (and with some caveats) pull the job off.
Lauren Mooney: This is obvious, but I do think it’s worth saying that your experience will depend so much on who you go with. They give you the option of going as one group of eight and booking an entire slot out, or of going in a smaller number and joining a team of strangers. The latter makes it much more about developing a team dynamic and learning how to work with people you’ve just met, which is really interesting, and I’d love to know pound-for-pound which group was more successful – whether having an existing relationships with the other participants helps or hinders.
It also inevitably makes a big difference to your personal criminal journey. So for instance, in our group there were a lot of strong personalities – people who were very vocal and keen to take charge – and in that kind of group I naturally take a bit of a step back and let them get on with it. So I felt like the amount of things I actually got to do and experience were quite limited by that. I didn’t have enough confidence in my abilities (and rightly so, to be honest; I am Shit At Crimes) to push forward and demand to be given tasks, and because once we were inside people got quite competitive and wanted to win, it didn’t feel so much like a game or a safe space where it was okay to fuck things up.
Tieclip: I can definitely see that. There are elements of this show which are quite carefully and comprehensively guided (more on that later) but the boundaries of the experience aren’t made explicit from the get-go. differencEngine has taken the decision to allow group dynamics to form more or less organically, and while it’s nice to have the stabilisers off, it will tend towards creating inconsistencies in the amount of fun available for every participant. It’s an occasionally tense environment, and without fixed roles (leader, map reader, scout etc.) it’s easy for the quieter criminals among us to get shouted down. I actually think you might get more out of it if you did go with a group of friends, where you might be more adept at establishing roles and working together from the get-go. Because that kind of role-sharing is possible, it’s just not directly encouraged, or perhaps not directly enough.
It’s something we both discussed following Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, that concept of an experience rejecting certain members of the audience or unintentionally marginalising them – people who are less familiar with the rules of engagement or simply less likely to push themselves into the front or give things a prod. But on the whole I found Heist to be far more accessible and considerably more fun. The performers do a great job pulling you into the world, from the blue-mouthed Irish poker-player Doyle to the hapless AJ who acted as our guide through the heist’s various stages. This isn’t life-changing one-on-one theatre, its artistic ambitions are commensurate with its theme, but this is hard-boiled genre business done so pleasingly well that it’s easy to drop your guard and play along.
Lauren Mooney: Oh, absolutely, Stewart, sorry, Tieclip. It’s interesting you should mention The Drowned Man actually – I feel like comparisons to Punchdrunk work are going to be inevitable because it’s immersive, but they couldn’t be more different experiences, could they? The intimacy of going in in a team of eight feels very different to the huge wandering crowds at The Drowned Man, plus one of the things a few people have told me they found frustrating in that show was the lack of a clear objective – that it would have been more fun to explore that world while having a task to achieve – and there’s a very clear set of objectives here at all times.
I also agree that it’s surprising how quickly and easily you get drawn into it: the set’s very simple, but perfectly pitched, and in addition to clever use of a handful of performers, there’s some really interesting stuff done with technology. About half the group are given radios and beyond that you have to pair up with people who didn’t have them. I didn’t have one and it was amazing how isolated that made me feel – which was frustrating at times but also quite exciting. At one point I had to hide from a security guard separately from everyone else, with no way of communicating with the rest of the team, and it was fucking terrifying! Knowing the guard was coming, but not knowing whether it was better to wait or make a break for it – I really felt like I was somewhere I shouldn’t be.
Tieclip: The use of technology was a real highlight. It’s one thing being shunted around by performers pretending to be security guards and another to frantically radio your comrades to alert them of the dangers you can see approaching on a CCTV feed. Despite occasional hiccups it’s a fantastic technical achievement, and it’s in the moments that performance and technological elements are most closely meshed that Heist really kicks up a notch. Guiding a sub-team through a near-pitch dark server room as guards patrol around them was proper Crystal Maze stuff – watching a bunch of people fuck up a simple challenge from a TV monitor while bellowing at them to ‘Get out!’ (or, more often, being one of those fuck-ups) was basically a childhood dream come true. It’s a shame not everyone can get a radio, and that’s probably a technical issue, but giving the participants those kind of real-world tools to use as they wish makes everything feel so much more convincing and immersive.
I think everyone in our team found the ending a little underwhelming, but that might just be because we screwed up too much stuff early on. There was definitely a sense of there being more of the show that we’d unwittingly denied ourselves access to, but that could be seen as a strength rather than a weakness. The show still suffers from that nagging suspicion that there are rather concrete boundaries surrounding the way scenarios can play out (which become realised at any point a participant begins to ‘play the script’ and stress-test the improv), so knowing that there are alternative endings and nooks and crannies of narrative that we missed is actually quite heartening. Of all the game-like shows that I’ve seen, Heist was the one that most succeeded in ‘carrying me away’ with it, and that’s a serious strength that Theatre Deli should be highly commended for.
Lauren Mooney: Completely. As an immersive experience, I’m not sure it can be bettered – the law-breaking may be fake but the adrenalin is real and there’s plenty of it. Some of the tasks (does it get more administrative than calling crimes ‘tasks’? Doomed to be square) had to be achieved in spite of the security guards doing a sweep of the room every two and a half minutes, and I’ve never known the better part of three minutes to go so quickly. It felt like the guards were always there! Our whole team agreed, in fact, that the entire experience seemed much shorter than it really was – which I guess shows how invested in it we all were.
Also, I think you and I agreed that the most enjoyable elements were all the detective-work, looking for codes and maps and trying to find safes and so on, which perhaps suggests that we don’t have enough of a criminal streak in our blood – but differencEngine really do make the most of the thrill of getting to do something illegal without doing anything illegal. It’s so aware of everything it’s playing on that it could slide into parody, but they toe that line really well, and you can’t help but take it all at face value. That transgressive element is quite a fun, powerful thing to play with, and it’s never over-egged, but it’s – you’re aware that in this reality you’re criminals, which makes you a real part of the story in a way that is so rare for audience members even in most interactive theatre. You do get a brief chance to step outside your own life just a bit, and in quite an unusual way – and that really does make Heist feel like a rare and rather special evening.