Can immersive theatre be accessible? My review of Theatr Clwyd and Guild of Misrule’s co-production of The Great Gatsby

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When I heard that my local theatre (Theatr Clwyd) was doing a production of The Great Gatsby I got really excited but then as I read more and found out that this Alexander Wright adaptation was going to be an immersive version staged in promenade (where the action takes place from space to space and the audience move with it) as well as that it was going to be staged in a derelict pub my heart sank a little, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to go see it. Because the words promenade and derelict building do not automatically strike you as being very accessible, especially when you know full well that even modern builds are often accessibility nightmares.

As someone who worked in Children’s Theatre and Theatre in Education immersive and promenade theatre has always captivated me as it is so pure and truly captures the magic that is theatre, breaking down that fourth wall and makes a play come alive. Not just as something to be watched but to be experienced. Something that is rarely experienced with theatre for adults, even though it most definitely should be. So there I was eager to see how an immersive play could work for adults and experience the world of Gatsby that had captivated me in the novel but anxious that I wouldn’t be able to even attend.

I decided to make some enquiries and was pleasantly informed that the show was indeed wheelchair accessible and that anyone with other mobility problems could be seated at convenient places to see the action and that although some small scenes would take place upstairs I’d still be able to follow along with the story without missing anything vital that would leave me questioning what I’d missed. With this in mind, I threw caution to the wind and booked but I decided it would best to attend in my wheelchair, rather than try to manage with my rollator because that way I for one had a comfy(ish) seat, two I was less likely to get jostled about or knocked which could cause me more pain, decrease the anxiety of being knocked or of conking out and it was a pretty clear symbol of what I’d be able to manage. And I’m glad I went with that choice. Although, that’s not to say that others with mobility problems weren’t respected because they were. This was just the best personal choice for my current needs and my own peace of mind. I’d just make your accessibility needs clear when booking so that the team at the venue can be prepared and make the experience as pleasurable and comfortable for you as they can.

Anyway, on with the show. Because this is an immersive production the audience are encouraged to dress up to help them fully embrace the show as an experience. Although it’s not compulsory it does definitely help get you in the mood (wrong era) and make you feel as though you are actually attending one of Gatsby’s notorious parties. I for one, need little encouragement to get some vintage glam on. Before attending I’d received an email with further details about attending, which said that entrance to the venue was at the rear of the venue, however on approaching the rear of the venue it was clear that the entrance was up some steep steps, which obviously wasn’t going to happen. I did like how this added to the illusion of attending a 1920s speakeasy though. We went round to the front of the building and there was a man dressed oh so inconspicuously on a busy high street in 1920s dress, ready to greet us, telling us, in his New York accent, to be discreet and not attract any attention from the feds, as well as the password to pass onto the doorman (who was much more than a doorman) who was setting out a portable ramp for me.

As we entered into the smoky bar area jazz music was playing, the doorman now turned barman took our drinks order and another lady took our coats and commended us on our outfits. It was quite cold in there but I was settled by the heater, which also meant that I wasn’t in the way or at risk of being tripped over as the venue filled up (approx 65 audience members were expected.) I was feeling a little apprehensive but different members of the community cast were sure to inform me what would happen and ask what I was comfortable with. Once all the audience were in Nick Carraway (Michael Lambourne) entered and began telling us the story of how he came to know Gatsby. It took the audience a little while to realise the play had started (after all that universal symbol of the house lights going down wasn’t there) but they soon did. Being behind lots of people I couldn’t see him, which at first made me a little apprehensive but at that point being able to see was less important than being able to hear F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose.

The action then moved on into another room, as we entered West Egg and straight into one of Gatsby’s parties. I was subtly informed that space had been made for me at the side and was then asked if we needed any help. Having people know to ask first before grabbing hold of your chair and pushing is always a comfort and makes you feel more human being than an object, so a big thank you for that. The same person was at my side each time the action set to change room again to put me in the best places to see what was going on without me feeling like I was being a nuisance or struggling (and therefore lessening my enjoyment.) Although, at one stage Nick Carraway himself insisted on wheeling me closer to hear Jordan Baker (Zoe Hakin) tell us how Daisy and Gatsby knew one another.

Obviously, I couldn’t join in the Charleston lesson but I could still do the arm movements and clap and sing along and I still felt as though I was part of the party. The actors too made sure not to miss us out (when you have a visible disability it’s surprising how many people don’t bother) coming over and introducing themselves and telling us what was happening in their world. Although of course, we already knew Jordan Baker from the magazines. As the action wound on a few audience members were taken upstairs by various characters and even when a larger number were taken back into the bar area at one stage the next thing there was an intimate scene before us to see George Wilson (Matthew Churcher) in this instance the bar manager telling us about his marital and money woes. So it never felt like we were being left out of anything. It certainly captured Jordan Baker’s famous line “I like large parties. They’re so intimate.” Which I guess, makes The Great Gatsby such a great candidate to be performed in this way. Even during the interval, the actors were circulating as though at a party, getting to know the guests and telling them parts of the story that maybe they did not catch. As well as encouraging the audience to talk to one another and tell them any salacious gossip they might have heard on their separate travels around Gatsby’s world.

The only thing I felt that I missed out on was actually seeing Tom and Myrtle together to better understand their relationship. Although I had known about the situation from Myrtle herself, who I enjoyed many conversations with. Props to Bethan Rose Young who actually made me like Myrtle for the first time ever. At times I did feel the music was a little too loud that it masked some of the dialogue and the interval music was a bit questionable. And it probably would have been useful to know before booking that the toilets could only be accessed via some steps too but that wasn’t too big an issue.

But overall, I felt immersed in a world that I expected to feel outside of. And it was a real testament to this production’s power that I felt so immersed that even my severe depression that has been zapping the joy out of absolutely everything did not even rear its ugly head. Immersive theatre on prescription, please. I couldn’t imagine the show being performed in any other way that made me feel the same as I had whilst reading the book. Even having the venue opposite a church whose bells were ringing seemed to add to the atmosphere of the show, especially as it coincidentally happened during Gatsby and Daisy’s reunion and seemed to be taunting them, like a sad echo of what might have been. Oliver Towse captures Gatsby perfectly, with so much mystery and the essence of infinite possibilities. You can see why Daisy (Amie Burns Walker) is in love with him whilst at the same time see why Tom (Jake Ferretti) thinks he’s a scoundrel (and not just because of the obvious.)

I want to say a big thank you to the cast, who I think are incredible for their timing from room to room and combining their set dialogue with improvisation and beautiful singing voices. But also to the community cast and crew (I see you dancing ASM) for helping make me feel a part of Gatsby’s world. Special mention to the stage management team for making everything seem so effortless and working with dialogue that will change from show to show. To Theatr Clwyd for producing yet another masterpiece and bringing audiences something a little different and to Guild of Misrule for producing and creating immersive shows that are smashing down the fourth wall and enabling more audiences to see theatre in a whole new and magical light. It’s great to see that a signed performance, a relaxed performance and a touch tour have also been included to help as many people access the show too.

The show is on in Mold until March 25th, although availability is very limited. You can also catch the show in Halifax next month at Square Chapel or in London (different cast) until July 2018.

What other shows or novels would you love to see made into immersive productions?

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