Immersive theatre in London: a guide The Mad Hatter in Alice's Adventure Underground

Immersive theatre in London: a guide

From baby elephants to interactive films in secret locations: a glimpse into the city's growing immersive theatre scene.


London Editor

Welcome to a parallel universe, where dreams and times and lives forgotten might just change your mind - if only for a night. Be transported through the annals of London into a brave and strange new world. Meet characters from the fairytale imagination, swap smalltalk with people you might have met before, in spaces, old and forgotten; tarnished, remastered and re-imagined, where rabbit holes welcome you to a subterranean Wonderland home to the Cheshire cat and Queen of Hearts or your journey is embarked upon as a member of a fearless maritime crew...

Where immersive theatre began

The founders of You Me Bum Bum TrainKate Bond and Morgan Lloyd, the founders of You Me Bum Bum Train

It all really started with You Me Bum Bum Train. The incredibly slick immersive theatre experience is returning this summer, having debuted just over a decade ago: it saw 80,000 would-be audience-goers trying to secure tickets within a minute for the show's last sellout run for London 2012, set in a disused office block opposite the Olympic Park.

It leads visitors, one by one, through a crooked door into a personal journey assuming the roles of everyone from eulogists to orchestral composers and has been praised by luminaries from Stephen Fry (who declared it, “the theatrical experience of my life. Exhilarating, scary, brilliant, breathtaking and so original,”) to Alex James, who crowned it, “the best thing about the 21st century so far, quite possibly the best thing ever...”

Punchdrunk in Paddington

Oliver-Hornsby-Sayer.-Punchdrunk.-The-Drowned-Man-A-Hollywood-Fable.-Photo-Birgit--Ralf-0384'Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable' by Punchdrunk, photo by Oliver Hornsby Sayer

Since then London has seen Punchdrunk transform a vast and derelict government building next to Paddington Station into fictional Hollywood powerhouse Temple Studios, in which an audience, all of whom wear white masks, chase actresses through large 1940s-style film sets that include scenes of rodeos, barn dances, and even trailer parks in the rain. Their latest sojourn, Against Captain's Orders: A Journey Into The Uncharted, guides children into a swashbuckling crew to navigate the National Maritime Museum. Elsewhere, Theatre Delicatessen's Farringdon hub teems with interactive works.

Secret Cinema

starwarssecretcinemaStar Wars at Secret Cinema, source:

The exponent that truly placed immersive into the mainstream was the 360-degree film experience Secret Cinema. This summer a secret London location is transformed into a Universal Studios-standard replica Star Wars galaxy luring legions of lightsaber-brandishing fans to become immersed in the world of The Empire Strikes Back. Last summer's epic Back to the Future grossed more than some of the season's cinematic blockbusters and will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movie in its spiritual home of Los Angeles.

Previous productions have seen the worlds of the live action-enhanced films recreated in a former hospital for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and rolled out in a Grade II-listed central London film set for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Recently, impresario Harvey Goldsmith announced plans for a large-scale immersive Hunger Games experience to launch in 2016.

Related London articles

Recent immersive theatre openings

Yellow DoorThe Little Yellow Door

Late last year five fictional flatmates welcomed me to the launch of The Little Yellow Door, a bar based on a London flatshare where menus are squirrelled within coffee table magazines and regular guests are given a key to the 'home'.

Around the corner, the by-appointment-only Heist gallery debuted a few months before, sequestered within an apartment block. The sprawling and stylish space is transformed in line with each show, and their last, Origins, saw Yoruban decor, spoken word performances and a giant iron wood and cow skin baby elephant grace the opening night.

HEIST101 MarcLagrangeThe Heist Gallery transformed for the opening of the Mark LeGrange show

Those looking to tumble down rabbit holes, be puzzled by Cheshire cats and enjoy fantastical tea parties should head to Waterloo this summer where Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground has taken over the Vaults below the station. This version of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland is a totally immersive experience where the audience choose which direction the adventure will take.

Alices-Adventures-UndergroundAlice’s Adventures Underground

On a birthday weekend in New York I was granted captain's privilege in selecting our closing night excursion. Presented with socialising at Soho House or dining at Per Se, I took an unorthodox risk, and so we found ourselves huddled in a rugby scrum on the floor of a disused office block in Tribeca, exchanging confidences with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. That was ten years ago, and the experience still stands high among the most exceptional journeys of my travel life...

If every visitor to a city must leave with a souvenir, the immersive experience might be ephemeral, but its memory, and legacy, last a lifetime.