Secretly I dream to be a location scout for pop-ups and all things show business – and love the transformation of the former King William IV pub in Elephant & Castle being transformed into the hosting grounds of Crooks 1926, a new immersive theatre experience based on the gangster scene in London’s East End of the 1920s. The building’s facade doesn’t give much away, just a discreet pub sign with a peaky blinder; no wonder we passed it twice looking for the address.
Not your average trip to the pub theatre then, remember that the 1920s were for most Europeans anything but golden; the old rules of order and society had collapsed after WW1 but no one established new values to guide the war-torn nations. Add money deflation on a global level with the widespread habit of self-medicating trauma with cocaine and you have an irresistible breeding ground for corruption and rings, local gangs controlling whole industries at constant war with each other.
Waiting for all guests to arrive we head to the bar and order sours and pints out of glass-bottomed tankards while studying the newspapers lying around: Articles about strikes demanding higher wages, recently passed narcotic laws, gangs and diamond heists, horse betting and train derailments transport us right into the theme. Flat caps are available to buy. We will return several times to validate evidence, unlock devices, phone, contact suspects via a heavy dial-plate telephone apparatus and get more drinks.
Being part of the gang and joining the struggle to defend power and influence we are repeatedly pushed to play dirty (while respecting gangster code of ethics – if we can afford to) and face the fine line between negotiation and blackmailing: Expect to smuggle, fix bets, dance at gypsy wedding and cheer at an ace basement fight – what you work on and achieve and how this influences the story is different for everyone tonight and will be different again the following day. Who do you suspect to be a rat? And given the evidence, would you allow to have another audience member killed?
The cast is incredibly engaging without pushing; they make us feel welcome, keep us busy and assure we are taking part while neither get bored nor stressed. I imagine balancing this while improvising and not breaking out of your cockney characters for over two hours is a big challenge. But we are in this together!
Now, I want to go again, dressed up and without dragging my laptop bag behind me and this time I’d do things completely differently. This is an incredible night out, more Babylon Berlin than The Great Gatsby, an extensive Cluedo themed escape room challenge but where roles and loyalties swap constantly, and new characters are added and removed all evening. If you do one thing today, book your tickets.
***** out of 5 stars
Crooks 1926 was developed by COLAB Theatre and returned social distancing concepts in place, closing on 18 December 2021.