Theatre review: BABEL London

Last week I snagged free tickets to go and see BABEL London, an immersive theatrical experience combining storytelling, live music, massed choirs and state-of-the-art visual effects to celebrate what it means to be part of a truly global community and the world city that is London (their words, not mine). Featuring a cast of 300 and set in  Caledonian Park this was going to be a little different than the previous night's The Wizard of Oz.

Having gone to Future Cinema's Bugsy Malone last month I thought I had a pretty good understanding of immersive theatre - a new trend? - but BABEL was something different. OK, it didn't require any dressing up like Bugsy, except for warm clothes - how bleak is May this year? I for one near the end of the evening was very glad to have layered up - but it required a lot more attention. Less passing enjoyment of what was going on and much more awareness. In fact, we were given a card at the start of the evening - which I neglected to look at, oops - telling us to:

Slow down, listen, look hard, see more.

When entering the park all around you are little scenes going on. What's interesting is that all these people are acting in isolation - they are all solitary - and mirror and fire make a reoccurring appearance. The people all seem downcast, downtrodden, and they are absorbed with their tasks. It's all a little bizarre. There are also people in off-white clothing who seem to be some sort of spiritual people? Leaders? It was a little hard to say, but I guess that's a good thing about the performance that it makes you think about what is going on around you.

All the action takes place around the outside perimeter of the park and eventually you make it to the centre where a clock tower looms over everything. There's scaffolding erect and tents and tables where you can buy food and drink, learn how to knit, make a Plasticine model or get a massage, to name a few of the things we saw going on. There's also a music tent with musicians and corners where people (the cast, not just anyone) share their stories - some which aren't in English.

I have to say, we were still thoroughly confused at this point. It's all a bit random and you have about an hour to "explore" the park before the live action really kicks in and you get more sense of the story and what's going on. One thing that was nice was the transition from light to dark, which added to the atmosphere, but immersive for me works a lot better if the audience have an inkling of what they are getting themselves into - the aim of this was probably to be "surprising" to people but it would have worked better if it had been more forthcoming.

The action kicks off around half 9 when a man goes on to the scaffolding in front of the clock tower to talk to the crowd. Security get involved and the man in charge asks the people why they are there. They tell of the tower calling to them and the still unknown people in white encourage them that today is the day. Who are these people and just what's so special about today?

What happens next is a stand off between the people and the security, with some of the security turning against their leader as they emphasise with the gathered people because of their shared humanity. The people no longer want to be scattered across the globe and want to be reunited and dwell together. I won't spoilt it but a stand-off ensues though, of course, there is the implied happy ending - as much as there can be a happy ending when the world they inhabit seems to be a dystopian one.

You're probably gathering from this review that I just wasn't convinced about BABEL, and you'd be right. Perhaps I just like my theatre a little more fluffy and care-free enjoyable, but I'm sure there are others who would definitely disagree with me and urge you to go and see it. It's interesting, certaintly, and a different sort of theatrical experience but I just didn't find it enthralling.

If you do want to do something a bit quirky, then do give it a go. It definitely throws up a lot of questions and makes you think - let me know if you figure out who the people dressed in white are - but you'll have to be quick as it's only on until May 20th, 2012.

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