Are immersive bars and experiences the death of cool London?

From prison-themed bars to theatrical dining rooms, novelty nights are trending in the capital. But do we really need our cocktails to come with a pricey side of ‘wacky’ fun, asks Helen Coffey

Friday 12 April 2024 06:33 BST
Immersive experiences are taking over the UK capital
Immersive experiences are taking over the UK capital (Getty Images)

How exactly did London become so, well, cringe? It used to be the city of all-night raves in former factories; bohemian artists pouring out radical work in Hackney warehouses; the achingly fashionable Primrose Hill set of models, actors and designers. Now, it’s the city of the novelty “interactive” experience.

That’s according to DesignMyNight, a site that curates a range of events and nights out in the UK, which has seen an 88 per cent jump in the number of punters looking for “immersive” experiences over the past 12 months.

“People want to combine eating and drinking with a memorable experience, whether it be immersive aspects, live music and dancing or something more competitive or theatrical,” Katie Kirwan, head of brand at DesignMyNight, told The Times. “Customers want to be able to book ahead or buy a ticket to be guaranteed somewhere to sit and to enjoy something that unplugs them from the everyday. Some of the choices springing up in cities across the UK are incredibly creative, brought to life with expert teams with theatrical cocktails often taking centre stage alongside the set design.”

Some of the highlighted experiences included Alcotraz – a UK chain of bars (the London one’s in Hackney) dressed up as American prisons where guests wear orange boilersuits and “smuggle” in their own booze; Moonshine Saloon – visitors to the Liverpool Street venue don cowboy attire, play cards and dice, and are thrust into a Wild West-themed storyline; and The Murdér Express in Bethnal Green, a theatrical and immersive 1920s dining experience. I can only assume it’s tourists propping up this burgeoning area of the hospitality sector; in my 13 years living in London, nobody once suggested we spend an evening mimicking inmates in a notorious US jail while sipping bougie cocktails. The local pub usually sufficed.

This recent scathing but on-the-nose tweet about the London mayor’s highly paid “night czar” struck a particular chord: “Forget a night czar, cities need someone in charge of things being cool.” Its follow-up imagined the new official getting to grips with an overflowing in-tray: “Sorry to send this letter but we will be bulldozing your Peaky Blinders pub tomorrow morning, it’s embarrassing to walk past”.

Don’t get me wrong – I love playing dress-up. I was so much of a theatre kid that I did drama as a degree and spent my early career getting paid to go into schools pretending to be Florence Nightingale. I’m the person who doesn’t break character during a murder mystery dinner party round a friend’s house. I was so embarrassingly “in the zone” the one time I attended a Back to the Future Secret Cinema event – complete with a Californian accent I kept up for the duration – people thought I was one of the hired actors.

Secret Cinema creates immersive events based around films (PA)

But the current proliferation of quirky London experiences seems to speak to a try-hard brand of “kookiness” that feels at odds with what used to be one of the world’s coolest cities. It’s the equivalent of that one acquaintance who loudly proclaims they’re “crazy” at every opportunity, when in reality they’re the most basic person you know. Surely we don’t need such desperate devices to entertain in a capital brimming with world-class museums, galleries, history, architecture, theatre, bars and restaurants? Do we really require our cocktails to come with a cringe-worthy side of “wacky” fun?

The whole package always feels a bit sad, from the staff who dreamed they’d be starring in a West End production by now but instead are delivering the same nightly monologue in a hokey accent, to the usually sub-par yet extortionately overpriced food and drink.

For that’s my main gripe with the majority of these events: the sheer expense. You’re paying through the nose for the “novelty” factor. Take Alcotraz: the cheapest ticket is £42.50pp, which includes your own “cell” and four personalised cocktails. Not bad value, you might be forgiven for thinking – before you read the small print, and realise that you have to provide your own alcohol. It’s the same deal with Moonshine Saloon, operated by the same company – you pay a premium and have to bring your own liquor for the drinks. And apparently no one has raised any objection to this? It makes me want to grab the participants by the lapels and shake them while screaming: “The emperor has no clothes!”

The current proliferation of quirky London experiences seems to speak to a try-hard brand of ‘kookiness’ that feels at odds with what used to be one of the world’s coolest cities

A standard ticket for the popular Crystal Maze Live experience in London and Manchester, where grown-ups can wallow in the nostalgia of playing the gameshow of their youth for 75 minutes, costs from £62. Monopoly Lifesized, “an immersive, physical version of the world’s favourite family game brand played on a 15m x 15m life-sized Monopoly board!”, charges a minimum of £54pp. The aforementioned Murdér Express will set you back anywhere between £74.50 and £587. While it does include a four-course meal from winner of The Great British Menu, Niall Keating, for that kind of money you could go to a genuine Michelin-starred restaurant for a once-in-a-lifetime tasting menu.

I do get it – the immersive experience is all about escapism, offering the chance to swap the mundane of the everyday for the kind of make-believe play many adults haven’t indulged in since childhood. But for the same price or less, you could also take in some actual theatre where you’re plunged into another world. Instead of participating in something where the cringe factor is likely to be off the scale, there’s Viola’s Room, the new labyrinthine installation from pioneering, world-leading immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, from £28. Or go and catch the riotous production of Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre – prices start from £19.50, but you can pay £39.50 for a standing ticket which puts you in the heart of the action, surrounded by the actors.

Perhaps I’m entering my grumpy old woman phase a couple of decades early, but I can’t help it. When people are willingly handing over wads of cash to spend a night wearing an unflattering outfit and bringing in their own booze, surely we, as a nation, have lost all street cred – more “Fool Britannia” than “Cool Britannia”. So bring on the “cool czar”, I say; and let’s hope the days of adult ball ponds and Peaky Blinders-themed bars everywhere are numbered.

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