Yorkshire Theatre Newsletter: But is it Art?
Unlocking the Theatrical Secrets of the Escape Room Challenge: 'Wine Escape' Review
It’s grim oop North. But not so much, if you have a well-paying job and own a house in a good area that you bought for a song. Knowing this, I was not surprised when Cherry Tree Productions successfully filled a ballroom at the upmarket Leeds Hilton Hotel for a glamorous theatrical event that was £80 quid a head.
Escape room challenges have exploded in popularity in recent years. For participants, it’s like being in a real-life video game, as players solve puzzles and accomplish tasks in order to attain the next stage or level towards freedom. Sometimes the escape is literal — there’s a game at the Dana, a soul-crushing former prison in Shrewsbury, North West England, where you can don a bright orange jumpsuit and scheme your way out of a real cell.
But more often, the escape is metaphorical; an immersive experience that involves team-work and challenges against the clock. They are immensely popular. One industry source estimates that in 2019 there were as many as 50,000-60,000 escape rooms worldwide. Standards vary. There is no quality control as such, but following the death by carbon monoxide asphysiation of five teenagers in Koszalin, Poland, in 2019, authorities have clamped down on fire safety. This has led to a flight to quality in those jurisdictions that care about such things.
Nevertheless, escape room games have a bad reputation. They exist largely beneath the plimsoll line of critical notice or appreciation, in a world of zombies and haunted houses, maniacs and prison breaks. They reek socially of bad food, hen nights and the type of drunken office party that ends in a pool of vomit.
Yet, to some extent, they are performance. They certainly involve performance — not least by the participants themselves, who frequently take on roles and dress for the part.
But is it theatre? This was very much on my mind as I took my seat at one of the best tables, adjacent to the performance space. On my right, a subdued group of thirty-something women from Leeds, nicely dressed in civvies. But on my left, the party was already started. Bev, Vicky, Stacey, Tina and Danielle from Bawtry were doing a full-on Great Gatsby with their elaborate 1920s-style costumes.
This was in keeping with the theme of the evening. The Wine Escape Live Dining Experience was set in a Californian winery at the start of Prohibition. Walter, the owner, and his wife Margot are planning an abrupt move to Europe — much to Margot’s bafflement since their business is apparently doing well exporting an alternative, and still legal, product — sugar syrup. But before they depart America for their new lives, Walter has planned a gigantic farewell party… And all his relatives are invited.
That was us. We, the audience, played the guests at the party. And when two gangsters enter, to threaten Walter and Margot, and lock everyone else in the (metaphorical) cellar, the stage is set for a series of puzzles that will unlock the secrets of the Hawker Wine Estate.
In the absence of an actual cellar, there was a large, plastic bin on each table. This contained the Clues — old photographs, some letters, playing cards, a pair of gloves — as well as a smaller box secured with a number combination padlock. You get the idea.
The fabulous Bawtry contingent were experienced players. South Yorkshire has its stereotypes, but Bawtry doesn’t conform to them. It is a prosperous, and well-connected commuter village on the edge of Doncaster. (American history buffs might be interested that some of the Mayflower Pilgrim Fathers came from there.) The wine flowed, at £29 a bottle, but nobody on our table was less than well-dressed, well-informed and well-behaved.
The eldest, Bev, had a poignant backstory of the sort which would, in former times, certainly have been picked up by her local newspaper. That doesn’t happen so much nowadays, so instead I’ll share it here. Following the early death of her son, at 38, she’d cheered herself up by answering an advertisement for extras at a Santa Claus theme park in Lapland. Against the odds — for she had no theatrical training — she’d landed the role of Mrs Claus and was planning to fly out to Finland shortly.
The big night out was to celebrate this. Her daughter, Danielle, ran a finance business, and she too had a theatrical streak — her witty and dashing “independent woman” costume reminded me of Yorkshire air pioneer Amy Johnson, or the pre-war female racing driver Helle Nice. Tina wore a chic turban which sported an exotic bird-of-paradise feather, and Vicky was a shimmering vision in a vibrant flapper dress she’d purchased from River Island.
About half the audience were in fancy dress — a fact which I, with my tight-fisted ‘every penny has a job to do’ approach to my money, found surprising on the eve of a deep recession. Indeed, with the markets in chaos and our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, entangled in a losing competition with a supermarket lettuce, the parallel at that moment with the politically unstable, post-pandemic 1920s was inescapable. But even in good times, there is a febrile quality to Northern prosperity. It does exist — but patches of affluence are set against great swathes of poverty. Bawtry sits conveniently on the transport networks which have finally restored parts of South Yorkshire to prosperity after the calculated cruelty of the 1980s pit closures. But a few miles away in Doncaster, the National Theatre has partnered since 2019 with the local CAST theatre to bring high quality arts experiences to a poor and demoralised community.
I don’t suppose anything this serious was on the minds of the audience, who’d come to post-industrial Leeds — nowadays a successful banking and finance hub — for a night out. And what did they get for their £80? A well-presented light meal (chicken breast with vegetables followed by a chocolate dessert) and what might be termed, in more exalted arts circles, as a participative drama. The wine, despite the name, was not included — much to the disgust of Stacey, who had misread the publicity blurb and now found herself paying vastly over the odds for a ten quid bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
The drama, if it can be termed that, was impressively well-judged for the needs of the performance. Auteur theatre, this was not. In a reminder that this is primarily a commercial exercise, Cherry Tree Productions refused to be drawn on who wrote and polished the script — it’s copyrighted to the company. But it did the job, beginning in media res with Walter and Margot setting the scene as they debated the move to Europe using a consistent vocabularly and style of speech which seemed very much in keeping with the era. Both characters were, if not exactly characterised, deftly drawn as types, and the plot moved on at a clip. Actor Aram Mardourian even managed to bring some inner life and internal conflict to the role of Walter.
The comedy hoodlums, Jimmy and Johnny, emphasised the strictly functional nature of the script. Their job, during the intervals between scenes when the audience tackled the puzzles, was to walk amongst us with their fake St Valentine’s Day Massacre-style weapons. They congratulated the successful whilst mildly abusing, in Prohibition-era slang, those who weren’t paying proper attention to the Clues.
As the night progressed and — despite the eye-watering bar prices — the audience became more and more inebriated, the performance started to resemble late-night review. The fourth wall disappeared and the cast began to adddress the crowd directly. Jimmy — or was it Johnny? — gained a big laugh when he observed in a bitter aside amidst the mounting chaos that he’d studied classical acting for three years.
It wasn’t Chekhov, nor intended to be. Knowing this, the remark flattered an audience which was sophisticated enough to be in on the joke. There were some predictable reveals (it didn’t matter — the hackneyed nature of the disclosures was part of the fun) and a dramatic reversal of the melodramatic “Did you take me for a fool?” variety. Then someone shot someone, and it was over.
In the end — and you have exactly the same problem when you attempt to treat video games as art — it wasn’t the play but the puzzle that was the driving force of the entertainment. Without the brainteasers to lighten the evening, I would have eaten a well-cooked dinner and then watched a slight but enjoyable drama being wrecked by pitch invasions from drunken audience members sitting at another table.
The first time this happened, it was hilarious. But it soon got old. Even when what’s onstage is a parody of an old-fashioned revenge thriller and you’re not surposed to take it seriously, it’s still satisfying to have bit of dramatic tension at the denouement.
But this, the repeated and rather pointless incursions selfishly destroyed. It was only the occupants of one table who were at fault, and I wish someone involved with the production or the venue could have exerted a bit of authority to help the beleaguered cast resume control.
I’m not sure anyone else really cared. The night ended happily enough with dancing — and there was also a photobooth and a popcorn stall.
Wine Escape travels to Liverpool, Cardiff, Cheltenham, Brighton, Birmingham, Cambridge, Lincoln, Exeter, Edinburgh and and Manchester, with new dates being added.
Agree that the drunks should have been curtailed. Much as I love lowbrow entertainment (and sorry to use the snotty "lowbrow" but I can't think of what else) I avoid any in the UK that promise to include copious boozing. After forty years overseas, I find the OTT drinking, and the obnoxious behaviour that comes with, really striking and sad. Whatever the event was meant to be about, it becomes all about getting utterly smashed and acting out. It suggests to me that even people who have kept their heads well above water in the dog-eat-dog economy of recent years are still basically unhappy.