UnCorked Theatre Company have taken up a residency above a swanky pub in Kensal Green, following a sell out run of an earlier incarnation of this production. At the helm of the company are Artistic Director, Christie Lee Manning, and assistant Lee Peter Hedges, both of whom also appear in the piece. The venue is small but quirky, which adds to the feel of what is afoot here. The company describe this production as “Cluedo meets the Seven Deadly Sins”, categorising it as an ‘immersive’ murder mystery. For certain there is a strong comparison to be made with Cluedo, and the piece is at its heart, a murder mystery; however it does creep into the recent group of productions labelling themselves as ‘immersive’ which I remain uncertain of agreeing with. With the amount of work currently being branded as ‘immersive’, the definition of what constitutes an immersive production seems to be becoming blurred and confused. This lengthy debate is one for another time, however I remain torn as to whether “How To Solve A Problem Like Murder” can be classed as ‘immersive’.
I decided to throw myself into the objective of the night; taking notes on what I witnessed, exploring my surroundings, doing my best to uncover who was to be murdered, and who committed the crime. On arrival I was handed an envelope, inside which was a mask, a pen and several pieces of paper containing information which would help to solve the murder. Some lively ‘children’ encouraged me upstairs and into a ‘Chicago’ style club; several characters milled around the entranceway looking mysterious, with dancers on the stage and placed around the bar area. It was at this stage we had to put on masks, establishing the barrier between audience and actor. Whilst this added a sense of mystique, the masks were quite uncomfortable, and often needed adjusting to see effectively. Whilst the remainder of the audience arrived, we were treated to a couple of well choreographed routines, mostly to Christina Aguilera songs (I assume from the B-movie ‘Burlesque’), until the two children appeared once again to perform an enthusiastic routine to the opening of “Chicago”. Check!
A mysterious voice set up the context of the evening, the rules, and finally, confessed to the murder! Something to bear in mind… Having told us to explore the place and to follow characters, I felt the presence of the children became a trifle unnecessary. As a positive, they encouraged less confident audience members to uncover clues, and to some extent, focused our attention on different pieces of action which took place. However, at times their marked difference in style made them unlikely characters in the world of the piece. This distracted from the immersive aim of the production, and the subsequent final explanation of their relevance within the story did not, for me, justify their presence.
Once we had enjoyed some time in the club and been introduced to the characters, we were taken back to the start of the day, to relive it alongside the suspects, track conversations and items of interest, with a view to solving the crime. We heard tales of a man whose wife had disappeared, who was crumbling and losing his grip. An ambitious manager, keen to better his status, a budding singer striving for a record deal and a troubled young dancer, jealous of those around her and paranoid of the state of her relationship. As we wove our way in and out of conversations, stolen moments, arguments and carelessly left documents, gradually a picture of the reality of the situation became clear. The more intimate conversations were broken up by larger dance scenes, rehearsals, back in the club, and certain character’s allowed their more intimidating traits to emerge. Uncorked have marketed this production with a focus on its sexuality but, to be honest, it would be sufficient to sell it on the premise of immersive murder mystery. Based on the website, I was half expecting an awkward burlesque show which thankfully it was not, and the dance routines do not ooze sex without choreographic substance, so to focus on the sexuality of the piece as a selling point somehow sells the performer’s skills short. There are some excellent dancers in the production, and the aim I would be focused on for future productions would be to develop their acting skills to match their dancing. I am by no means suggesting the acting was poor, merely that the production would perhaps have more impact if the dancers were as strong as actors as they were as dancers. A particular mention should be made to the actor playing Joseph (the manager of Paradise Bar), who shaped an intriguing figure and stood out within the cast. He was one performer not involved in the dance, so I presume first and foremost, an actor. It would serve the company well to benchmark this particular performer as the required standard. He was both engaging and believable.
The company aims to “challenge their audience to engage with private acts usually left behind closed doors”, however I'm not sure the collection of arguments which moved the plot along could be classed as ‘private acts’, however the plot was engaging and gave the audience more than enough clues and encounters to make solving the murder interesting and entertaining. A handful of documents have been strategically placed to discover, and the events are structured in such a way as to allow enough time to piece the information together. You can explore the set, listen in on conversations, even follow some secret instructions…each helping you get a little closer to a solution. Obviously because the whole experience takes place on the upper floor of a pub, the directors faced the challenge of having to work with a given space. The presence of an upstairs bar helped to provide the ‘club’ scenes, however given only 3 additional workable rooms in which to construct the entire plot, it was impressive how the cast swerved in and out in such a way as to conveniently overhear conversations which would later by referred to. With the links between characters and situations being the main way for the murder to be solved, it was essential this structure worked smoothly.
I left Kensal Green feeling pleased with myself, having successfully uncovered all the mysteries of Paradise. The production provides an entertaining and enjoyable evening, and the company show great potential as emerging artists. In their current form, it would be interesting to see how the production could be adapted in different spaces, and perhaps used either as a touring piece or even as a private bookable event. The experience currently lends itself extremely well to the ‘pop-up’ or mobile scene, and with more research and experience, Uncorked are sure to carve a prominent place in that sphere, or forge their way to a more commercially attractive production company.