Spoiler level: Spoilers ahead (the event may return)
‘Is There Anybody There’ was billed as a horror-themed immersive theatre event in Mexborough, created as a collaboration between Faceless Ventures and Carter’s Magical Events. The show was centred around a ghost hunt with renowned (yet disgraced) paranormal investigator Victor Hughes, who had come out of retirement to present a new investigation for us, a select group of ‘competition winners’. Upon arrival we joined Victor for an exploration of an old building, in search of evidence for a world beyond our own. Victor explained to us that we’d be conducting a series of experiments inside the building, which used to be a school. After a few introductions and instructions, he led us down a darkened stairway, to begin our first experiment.
The building’s history had been incorporated into the show, which added some interesting realism, but I felt certain backstories were unnecessarily convoluted as a result of the school theme. The backstory about corporal punishment is a notable example – it distracted me, thus taking me out of the experience momentarily. As the event was set in an old building, the hauntings could just as easily have been generic, especially given the fact that a (superb) twist at the end of the show implied that perhaps none of what we were told was to be believed; we’d been lured on false pretences, arguably rendering the previous scenes/backstories redundant (depending on your point of view). I’d have loved to see this idea embedded even deeper into the show – for example, a ‘sham’ ghost hunt, completely devoid of activity to the point of being comical; an exercise in futility which we would only come to understand the real reason for at the end (and would be all the more climactic as a result of the farcical failings beforehand). The paranormal activity scenes were extremely enjoyable in their own right, and well executed for the most part, but a dash of irony would have made the final reveal all the more delectable.
The aforementioned twist elevated this production beautifully; lighting, sound, and the actors’ commanding presence all worked to create a dramatic scene which unambiguously and ferociously tore down the curtain between our world and the spirit world; a curtain we’d only peeped through during the previous scenes. For a time during this scene, we simply observed the sinister character as he revealed his identity and intentions; this was an effective respite from the audience participation beforehand, before gradually bringing the audience back into the show. It was tense and extremely engaging, and the insider did an amazing job here too. Bursts of pure performance, such as that one, enhanced the theatrical edge of this show. Something I’d have loved to see, which would have further enhanced the theatricality, would’ve been the incorporation and repetition of the title, ‘Is There Anybody There’. This haunting question could have been spoken aloud repeatedly in each room, or even flipped completely to take on new meaning; with the use of some mangled EVP-style audio on a tape recorder, trapped spirits or even people from another dimension could have been asking us, the audience, that very same question. Playful elements such as these would have chipped away at the ‘ghost hunt’ formula until that stand-out final scene smashed it it altogether.
As far as the immersive aspect goes, this is where the ghost hunt formula becomes something of an issue. I didn’t feel that crucial sense of being drawn into anything. In comparison, an earlier work by Faceless Ventures, Diary of a Deceased (which was set in the same building), featured certain scenes which were ten times more immersive than this. That show delivered a sense of stepping into a story and immersing ourselves in its invisible pages. The show was all around us. Characters interacted with us, but the boundaries of reality were blurred by these interactions; they didn’t know us, our presence wasn’t always directly acknowledged. We were equal parts guests and participants, like a surreal yet tangible dream. That is immersive theatre. The problem with a ghost hunt formula is that the actor(s) would be interacting with the audience regardless of the context of the show, so the main immersive element is already a given expectation. It doesn’t translate well into a performance. The second issue is that to a non-believer such as myself, setting the final scene aside, there was no difference between this show and any other ghost hunt I may partake in. It’s ironic to claim that a show themed around the paranormal was too deeply embedded in reality to be theatrical, but on this rare occasion, this was the case.