A railway arch in the East End is the home of a new set in a 1930s railway dining car - accompanied by a meal which transforms the experience. Emily Anderson went along.
‘All aboard, all aboard!’ calls the train conductor as we leave the cloakroom to embark on a Christmas adventure with Funicular’s new-cheekily named production The Greatest Snowman. Arriving at a railway arch in deepest, darkest Bethnal Green might be a little disconcerting for the average theatregoer but the unique location and the thrill of the unknown is a large part of the draw for those seeking immersive theatre in London.
Immersive theatre has soared in popularity as it has become more mainstream over the past decade, with audiences craving fresh experiences. There is a huge appetite for a show that lets you escape technology and day-to-day stresses by delving into imaginary worlds where you can interact with people and experience true emotional responses.
Expectations for immerseive theatre are high, however. Ticket prices more or less match the West End, reviews are limited – partly because mystery is part of the fun, partly because the show is never quite the same twice – and the bar has been set high by the likes of Punchdrunk, who created the enormously successful Sleep No More in New York and The Drowned Man in London. Add in the fact that this is a difficult thing to get right (one small detail out of place can completely shatter the illusion) and it’s no great surprise that new immersive theatre productions often fall short.
Yet the sense of possibilities brings with it great excitement, and heading to The Greatest Snowman with Christmas around the corner I was in good spirits, ready to be transported to another world. I was shown to my seat, a comfortable leather booth in a venue pleasantly intimate, giving a really exclusive feel. I was impressed with the clever design; the carpet was jazzy, the booths were luxurious, period table lamps created a good ambience and the digital carriage windows looked out onto a grubby train station platform. Funicular is a fairly new company, officially founded only in January 2018, but they’re already very adept with the classic rail dining carriage format which all three of their shows have so far used. They’ve also taken that theme up a notch by serving food that the Orient Express would be proud of thanks to the skills of Louisa Ellis, a 2017 finalist in Masterchef: The Professionals.
It soon transpired that I wasn’t heading to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas but I had boarded a train to the Birmingham Christmas market departing from the fictional Pedley Street Station. The first signs that the show had began was when a handsome man named Ed Snow stormed in, a passenger like the rest of us, full of Christmas misery which was greeted by a chorus of boos and hissing.
As the story unfolded we met a broad cast of characters: Father Christmas’s daughter, her two disruptive elves and the legendary snowman himself. The story didn’t feel important to the experience: this is a show whose emphasis is on creating a fun atmosphere with light-hearted humour and audience interaction – a healthy dose of pantomime, in other words, that’s very welcome at this time of year. As soon as I realised this was a show that didn’t take itself too seriously, I began to relax and enjoy the jokes, the back-and-forth and the clever effects such as the blizzard seen through the digital windows.
There was something else to enjoy as well: the food. The Greatest Snowman ups the ante on the normal immersive theatre with the four-course meal served during the performance. Trying to incorporate food and drink into this sort of production is tough – generally speaking the focus is on the set, actors and storyline – but when done right, the sensory elements of taste and smell truly enhance the experience. That was the case here – and it was almost too successful, since Louisa Ellis’s menu was so delicious it made the evening, and threatened to overshadow the performance as we ummed-and-ahhed about the dishes.
Funicular will surely continue to get better, but they’ve got their work cut out to create a production good enough to hit the same heights as the food. Not that it really matters: it’s a really fun way to celebrate Christmas with a group of friends, combining a delicious evening meal with a side of light entertainment.
The Greatest Snow Man, until 23rd December 2018. Tickets from £56 including four-course meal – www.funicularproductions.com/thegreatestsnowman
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