How to write about something as secret as Code 2021 without, you know, breaking the code? Lydia Manch taps her nose and dives in…
For background: this is the latest performance from Secret Studio Lab, immersive theatre icons. The pre-release press material says ‘world stage première’, which with a company like this one’s more than just marketing-speak – the last few years have seen Secret Studio Lab bounce between New York, Hollywood, Hong Kong and London. Whenever tickets for a new SSL show drop in the UK – doesn’t happen often enough – hype and guesswork start sweeping the internet like fire.
But this is the second show in a year Artistic Director Richard Crawford’s brought to London, the first being a burlesque-sci fi-noir spin on Tarantino – staged in a members’ club hidden in a disused pub by the Haggerston canal. It was phenomenal. And the secrecy was sort of self-sustaining – being cross-genre and with so much complicated stuff happening through so many rooms, it was surprisingly difficult to describe to people after. They weren’t there. They don’t know.
What we know about Code 2021 ahead of the night is: it’s in Bethnal Green, set in a not-distant-enough dystopia where Trial TV is the prevailing judicial system in the criminal court. As part of the live jury audience of a trial being broadcast to the nation, you have to investigate and ultimately, rule on the innocence or guilt of Mike Lewis, in the death of his girlfriend, Alice Duvall.
There are complicating factors: among others, Lewis is a middleweight boxing champion, Duvall was an Olympian show-jumper. Celebrities doing bad things to each other has attracted a grandstanding, gold-suited presenter and compounded the feeling of entertainment twisted out of a tragedy.
‘It won’t be an employment tribunal’, the presenter shouts with sinister pleasure, across the pre-trial bar. ‘Nobody stole any bread!’ The bar’s a small one – just big enough for wood-panel walls, a few heavy chairs and the small audience. Tickets are limited to this show, for reasons that become obvious as the performance unfolds.
Code 2021 has an unfair advantage over other immersive theatre events, being staged in what must be one of the loveliest hotels in London. We trail through warm, shadowy halls and dark wooden doors, suddenly opening onto unexpectedly enormous crime scenes. The action takes you through rarely-seen rooms and parts of this building you’d never get access to usually, so it could be an immersive hubcap exhibition and you’d still be medium-enthralled by it. It’s just a bonus that SSL have turned a fairly standard op-ed gripe about Modern Times – rise of reality TV, obsession with celebrity misdoings, schadenfreude – into something much more than that.
Their take on it’s gripping, sinister and manages the main difficulty of relying on willing audience participation – that somebody wanting a piece of the stage isn’t a guarantee they’ve got much to say on it – with some impressive ad-libbing from the cast to keep the pace going strong. With this latest show Secret Studio Lab throw you into a dystopia with – in the stylised, callous glitz of the premise and the presenter – a touch of Black Mirror or Hunger Games about it. And a lot of the present about it, which is, obviously, the most frightening part.
Code 2021, a Secret Studio Lab performance, runs till 20th October with standard tickets priced at £29.99. To book or read more about Secret Studio Lab’s work, visit their website.