In a warehouse in London Bridge it is 1940, Lord Halifax is the Prime Minister, World War Two rages on and old timey music plays out of a stereo system somewhere. We know this because the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, who has wanly but affectionately bestowed the nickname “Dougie” upon himself, briefs us while instructing us to fill in identity cards. So begins For King and Country an immersive theatre experience that is one part Cluedo, one part risk and a whole lot of fun.
The audience take on the role of MPs who have been appointed designated survivors and must conduct the war from an underground bunker while the fighting rages on. Most of the audience members (including myself) don accents that are a cross between an old-fashioned BBC broadcaster and a caricature of a Noel Coward play character. These quickly fade as the war time issues begin to flare and the audience members get their head in the game. A Prime Minister must be chosen along with war time cabinet ministers via mini-elections, issues must be debated and the various ministries must continue to run.
The setup is that there are three stations manned by the Propaganda Minister, Minister of War, and the Foreign Secretary who are advised by various bunker staff. Each station must complete a task or make a key decision after which Parliament is reconvened and the audience members are briefed on how their choices have affected the war time progress (real live historians are present assessing the impact of audience decisions).
For King and Country’s greatness lies in its ability to involve all the audience members and use them as the main tool to drive the action forward. The parliamentary debates are a particular highlight, where most people get involved and their ideas are met with the sarky ire of the Principal Private Secretary, who expresses particular exasperation when the audience voted to sack their Minister of War. Armed with an arsenal of present day foresight, the audience are able to bring their own personal knowledge of the Geneva Convention and quotations from the great philosopher Kanye West to the fore.
The actors have the stiffest of upper lips and keep calm and carry on for the duration of the performance, nailing the ineffable whimsical severity of government officers of the past. The piece’s historical accuracy extends to the sexism of the R.A.F leader who insisted on mansplaining the outcome of a military campaign to female audience members. Despite the piece’s historical context, it is a shame that the female characters are not given more prominent story lines.
Not all stations are created equal, the War Ministry station is a tad technical and not as inclusive, similarly the challenges set by the Foreign Office are interesting but often paper thin. The meatiest station by far is the Propaganda Ministry where timely speeches are written and then broadcast throughout the bunker.
But all in all For King and Country is a jolly good time that masterfully combines kitschy nostalgia, strategy, audience participation and a damn good cup of tea.
For King and Country is playing at Colab Factory until 10 June
Photo: Owen Kingston