In February this year, a new ‘immersive adventure experience’ opened in Catford. Called The Viewing, the experience is inspired both by interactive theatre and escape room games, and is spread over nine rooms in the recently refurbished Ninth Life pub, formerly The Black Horse and Harrow, writes Holly O’Mahony…

The premise of the experience begins in mock reality before spiralling into a topsy turvy world of magical realism. You and your fellow adventurers have come to a meet an estate agent from Morgan Turnkey, with the view of buying a property in the up-and-coming district of Catford. (The storyline was inspired by the many people who approached the creative team asking whether they were converting the pub into flats.) Things start to look suspicious when you learn a builder working on the site recently went missing. Then a doorway turns out to be a portal into another dimension and before you know it, you’ve stumbled into an Alice in Wonderland-esque world of eccentric characters, wacky decor, a trail of keys and a mission to find the illusive, White Rabbit-like missing builder.

The Viewing has been conceived by Dr Claire MacNeill of Mash Up productions and Dan Hills of Laine, a company with venues in both London and Brighton that specialises in transforming pubs into places that bring artists together. Claire and Dan are the chief conceptualisers and story writers of The Viewing, while also in the mix is the art direction lead Natasha Coverdale and Ben Tucker of Buck Buck Games, who planted the challenges into the rooms.

“With traditional theatre you’re a passive receiver of who and what you’re watching, but with immersive and interactive theatre, you’re also part of the story,” explains Claire, who has a PhD in Applied Theatre and 20 years’ experience creating interactive theatre in unconventional spaces. She’s worked with children in care and in prison, and has written a book, Applied Theatre with Looked-After Children, the last chapter of which explores festival culture. “Festivals can become an adult playground, giving people the space to be creative and revert back to being children,” she says. “Festivals enable people to free themselves from the oppressions of a capitalist society and reconnect with who they are as individuals.”

Photos: Ellen Richardson

Claire was brought into the project to renovate the pub in October 2018. She knew she wanted to infuse the space with festival culture – roaming performers, participatory art projects, colourful decor and (biodegradable) glitter – but initially envisioned the rooms above the pub as artists’ studios. It was a combination of more funding for the project and a conversation with Laines about escape room challenges the company had in the pipeline at some of their other venues that shifted Claire and Dan’s focus to creating an immersive, interactive piece of theatre.

Boomtown, an annual summer festival specialising in music, theatre, escapism and community, was a key source of inspiration to Claire. As was the work of world-renowned immersive theatre specialists Punchdrunk and interactive theatre connoisseurs You Me Bum Bum Train.

Referencing leaders in the field as your inspiration is one thing, but creating a similarly stimulating experience is much more challenging. You only have to try out a random selection of the immersive experiences which have recently popped up in London and to realise not all companies have the touch to make something brilliant, and many fall flat, make you cringe or leave you feeling downright bored.

What’s more, Claire and Dan wanted to add a third element – games room challenges – to what was already an immersive and interactive experience. “It’s a difficult thing to join up genre wise,” admits Claire. “Immersive and interactive theatre is very much about story, characters, empowerment of the participants and how you immerse them in the reality you’re presenting them with,” she explains. “Whereas games rooms are about competition and winning.”

Having now experienced The Viewing, I can attest it really is wacky. I won’t give too much away – far better to book and experience it yourself – but its storyline, which merges the real world with storybook-esque fantasy realms, is captivatingly executed. Your original quest to buy a property with the guidance of a smarmy estate agent dissolves as you step into the maze of rooms with tiny doors, giant cats, and larger-than-life characters. You’ll jump from an old, musty gin parlour to a whispering garden, take a gamble on which door to enter and work together to solve puzzles.
Whether or not you’ve booked The Viewing, Ninth Life pub is now a destination in its own right for those hoping to find a bit of festival culture in London. Part pub, part fun house, the bar’s panelling has been swapped with giant, colourful pencils, while a squiggle of fairy lights – designed by festival lighting specialist Caz Dickson – are scrawled across the ceiling.

A Cabinet of Curiosity offers keyhole-size windows through which you can look upon miniature works by local artists, while a wall decorated with colourful monsters has been designed and painted by locals of all ages, overseen by community artist Scott Walker.

Graffiti by Shoreditch artists End of the Line adorns the front of the pub and will soon decorate the back garden too, where food trucks run by local businesses are also scheduled to move in. On Friday and Saturday nights, roaming performers interact with punters drinking in the pub – just as they would at a summer festival – while circus performers take to the stage, providing free entertainment.

For now, Claire, Dan and the team – which includes a cast of 10 performers in the experience, further entertainers on the pub floor and several participatory artists – have their work cut out for them. They’re looking to extend performance times for The Viewing and are working on ways to adapt the experience for children, too.

“We’ll run with this story for six months then decide whether we want to invite other theatre companies in, develop the story further, or create an entirely new one ourselves,” says Claire. My advise? See this version while you can. Yes, there are a couple of loose ends that are still being ironed out, and true, The Viewing might not be the next Punchdrunk or You Me Bum Bum Train yet, but it’s as close to the work of these hugely successful, high prestigious companies you’re likely to find in London this year.

The Viewing, Ninth Life, 167 Rushey Green,
Catford, SE6 4BD.
Thursday & Friday 7pm – 9pm; Saturday 1pm – 9pm.
Admission: £25 per person for the 60 minute experience plus a drink.