On Saturday, I made one of my infrequent trips down to That London, this time to see a theatrical performance with my friends Debi, Penny, and Ozzy.
The Soulless Ones is an immersive production from Hammer Films, in which you as an audience member enter an old Victorian music hall, and are handed a cloak “to make you invisible to the vampires” (the production is immersive, but not interactive — you’re not meant to take part in the action). After a brief introduction in which you are told that you have been gathered to witness a psychic experiment, you’re free to wander the music hall as you wish and to discover the stories that are happening there.
Each of the characters you’re introduced to has their own storyline, and those storylines intersect. You’re advised to follow the character you find most interesting, though you can also choose to explore on your own or to find a particular place and follow what happens there (several rooms had near-constant action in them). Each character wanders from room to room as their own story dictates, and interacts with the others, and so no matter what you do you catch glimpses of several stories as well as the whole story you choose to follow.
As a fan of modular storytelling, this was fascinating to me. In some ways, perhaps following one actor around (as you’re advised to) isn’t the best option, as each character’s storyline is rather slow going, with each scene only advancing their plot a tiny amount (in order that people who haven’t seen them for four or five scenes don’t then get completely lost), and you might be advised to sit in one place and see a variety of different characters’ scenes, but this is less of a problem with Gothic horror than with almost any other genre, given that it’s a genre based on the slow burn and accrual of horrors, rather than on dense plotting.
It felt, in some ways, like reading a superhero crossover, where you have two bookend scenes and then just follow the titles you’re interested in, so you might be reading Blue Beetle and have Green Lantern drop in for a few panels before he goes on with his own story. At least one of my friends has said they’d feel frustrated at “missing things”, but the slow-burn nature of the story means you don’t feel like you’re missing out — rather, it feels like you’re seeing the story you are following embedded in a larger world.
And while the storytelling isn’t interactive, the fact that you make choices about what you can see means that you can experience the *kind* of story you want. For example, my friend Penny (who has reviewed the show here, and who has gone into a lot more detail about specific characters and spaces) is a super-fan of Hammer, especially their Dracula films, and the experience she had was “like being in a Hammer film”. I’m also a Hammer fan, but it’s not my main fandom in the way it is hers, and so the story I experienced ended up being one which drew more from other strands of Gothic horror — my experience was very Gormenghastly, with more than a hint of the Doctor Who serial Ghostlight to it. Both, of course, still were Gothic horror stories — it’s not like you can go off into an epic fantasy story or anything — but they’re subtly different flavours of Gothic horror that suited our particular tastes, so we both ended up getting an experience that was better than if we’d shared the other’s (which said, I’m sure I’d have enjoyed Penny’s and vice versa).
The ability to pick up and put down threads of story was aided by the characters being very well-drawn types. Every character was familiar from dozens of films and books — the “psychic researcher” showman who has made a big discovery and wants to prove it to the sceptics; the reluctant psychic who has a complicated relationship with her gifts; the sceptical man of science who doesn’t believe a word of this flummery; the Renfield-esque human servant of the vampires; Carmilla , last of the Karnsteins and Queen of the Vampires; the foppish eighteenth-century vampires with white-painted faces; the bald, cowled, vampire monk who turned to the Devil when God could not save him, and so on. Each character was given depth as the show went on, of course, but anyone with even the most passing familiarity with Gothic horror would have been able to pick up instantly who everyone was and what their motives were.
The story I chose to follow was that of the sceptic, Solomon Cresswell. Cresswell’s story is one of a descent into madness and torment — at the start he is an upright late-Victorian/Edwardian gentleman, who’s been invited to the psychic experiment because he’s ridiculed the experimenter in the press. However, his whole belief system is shattered when he realises that the spirit world is real, and there is life after death — and even more so when he briefly talks to his dead wife through the medium. He slowly descends into madness and drunkenness as he realises that the vampires have the ability to resurrect the dead, and eventually reveals the source of all his guilt and shame. He’d been a researcher, trying to find a cure for consumption, when his wife had come down with it, possibly from visiting his laboratory. He’d become so desperate for materials for his researches that he’d resorted to killing patients in the advanced stages of the disease, to get access to their organs, but while he’d thought that he was near a cure, he’d never actually managed to get one — and his wife had died while he was busy with his work. He’d still not buried her, but kept her corpse on ice in the hope of one day reviving her. The vampires’ ability to resurrect the dead gives him hope, but when he finally overcomes his scruples enough to ask them for their secret, they explain they can only revive dead *vampires*, and that the only way for him to be with his wife is for him to die too, and so he willingly allows himself to be sacrificed in the ritual that is the big closing setpiece.
Cresswell’s story is very much one of ideas, and it confronts a lot of the evils of Victorian society. It deals with imperialism, the rise of eugenics, and the way that scientific advances in the Victorian era were fuelled by colonialism and grinding poverty. These things are not the centre of the narrative — this is, fundamentally, escapist fiction, after all — but they were *part* of the narrative, and drove some of the stronger moments, so the story as I experienced it was not the steampunkery and top hats that so much modern fiction in the Victorian era is.
Every one of the dozen or so characters has such a journey, and the way the stories interact and interlock is wondrous. Each actor has to give a continuous two-hour performance, going up and down (a *lot* of) stairs and having to make entrances at precisely the right time. Some scenes have a certain amount of slack, starting with one character gloomily staring at a letter from a dead love or similar, presumably to allow everyone to get back on track, but surprisingly few of them, and an equal number require meeting someone on the stairs as both characters are on their way to other rooms. To give any performance at all in such circumstances must be a massive feat of athletics and timing, but the actors all managed to give *good* and occasionally great performances.
(Particular credit here has to go to the actor who played the poet who was using one of the vampires as his muse — the actor in question was a last-minute replacement for our performance, and had to read his lines from the script. Happily this didn’t break the mood too much as of course as a poet he could carry “a sheaf of his poems” with him, but he still managed to give a good performance under what must have been impossible circumstances.)
And the venue itself was perfect for the performance. Hoxton Hall is a Victorian music hall, with most of its fittings still as they were when it was built, and so immediately it has the advantage of *looking* like somewhere from a Hammer film (or, actually, from The Talons of Weng-Chiang) while also having a large central space with a stage which can be used for the big opening and closing scenes. But other parts of the venue had been dressed to fit — there was a “graveyard” in the cellar which was surprisingly convincing, for example.
In every way that matters, the production aspects — costume, venue, set dressing — *were* Hammer. (And, specifically, they were 50s/60s Hammer, all decaying aristocratic grandeur with the occasional bucket of Kensington gore, rather than 70s Hammer. There were no women having to bare their breasts, and no Kung-Fu vampires, here.)
In fact, I only had two real nitpicks that could be made about the production at all — at one point, Cresswell refers to another character, under his breath, as a “fascist”, a term which wasn’t in use at the time the story is ostensibly set.
And a *really* tiny one which I bet no-one else would have noticed at all. There’s a scene in which a character is killed in what amounts to a public execution, and vampires drink his blood, while someone plays “Champagne Charlie” (this character, who I otherwise didn’t see, apparently sings quite a few songs at different points). Now, this makes a lot of sense — not only is “Champagne Charlie” a song that turns up quite a lot in films about Jack The Ripper or Jekyll and Hyde as a general signifier of Victorianness, it’s also a song that was sung by the crowd at the last ever public execution, to mock the condemned man, the year before Hoxton Hall was built, and there’s various other resonances that make it the perfect song for the scene.
However, the version that was sung was not the version that would have been known to Victorian music-hall goers, but rather the version with rewritten lyrics (“Champagne Charlie is my name, by golly”) that was released as Blind Blake’s final single in 1926.
I suspect the chances of another person who’s both a fan of late-Victorian entertainment history *and* of 1920s ragtime guitar following the story to that point are minimal, but it was still an odd duff note in what was otherwise a near-perfect experience. Presumably the script just said “he plays Champagne Charlie”, the musician got hold of an old record of the song and learned it, and no-one realised it was the wrong version.
(Happily, for anyone else who likes verisimilitude in their stories about supernatural blood-drinkers summoning angelic embodiments of destruction and damnation, I’ve come up with a Watsonian fix. You see, there’s a reason I say it was “released as Blind Blake’s final single” rather than just that it “was Blind Blake’s final single” — it’s generally believed that while the track in question is credited to Blake, it’s by someone else, and we don’t know who. As the character singing the song is a vampire, it would be perfectly possible for him to have still been alive in the 1920s and to have been the person who was recorded, singing his own version of the song. There you go.)
But the fact that this was the *only* major criticism I can make of it as a show is in itself telling. There are a couple of points I can make about things that aren’t the show itself though.
One is that the “follow an actor around” style of experiencing the show is possibly not the best way. Not only do you get the same piece of information more than once on occasion, you also occasionally have the experience of being the *only person* following that actor from one scene to another, which can feel a bit like being a stalker (possibly only to people with my own particular social hangups though). If anyone reading this is going, my advice instead is to explore the venue for the first half, and then to sit in the main hall for the second, as that will possibly give you a better spread of the different styles of story without feeling socially awkward.
The other thing to note is that by its nature the show is not perfectly accessible. There’s no audio description (though this wouldn’t, I think, be a problem for anyone with any vision at all, as you can wander as close to anything you want to see as you want, and nothing I saw required a particular visible detail) or subtitles, for fairly obvious reasons (I think audio description *could* be done, just about, but it would be a mammoth task). There are also flashing lights and dry ice used at various points — though while our party contained one person who’s photosensitive and two whose asthma can be set off by dry ice, it wasn’t at a level that affected any of us (though obviously I can’t guarantee that’ll be true for anyone else).
It’s also impossible to experience *some* modes of the story without being able to use stairs. Our party had two people who use a stick, and this could have been a problem. There *are* lifts (and my friend chose to use them) but of course using them pulls you out of the story somewhat, and it’s also not possible to follow a particular actor that way, as they’re always moving up and down between the different levels of the theatre. For myself, I was lucky enough to be having a good day with my arthritis, but still my choice of who to follow was somewhat decided by him being physically easier to follow than some other characters who were dashing about.
But that is, I think, part of the nature of the event, and I can’t see any way of doing better for mobility-impaired people that wouldn’t break the immersion, and while those of us who can’t walk well are thus limited in how we can experience it, it’s still possible to have a worthwhile experience within those limits.
With those caveats, though, I can absolutely say that this event (which runs until November 4) has my highest possible recommendation, assuming you have any love at all for old Hammer films, general spooky vampire stuff, or immersive or modular storytelling, and that you can get down to That London (I’m on a low budget and it’s a fairly expensive show, so I ended up getting the Megabus there and back and not getting to bed til 5AM, and it was still worth it). I wish I’d been able to go a second time, in order to try different ways of experiencing it, and if Hammer put on another of these events next year (or even just remount the same one) I’ll definitely be going.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?