Review: The Crystal Egg, The Vaults

How does one immerse a 21st century audience in a Victorian science fiction story about Martians? That is the question…and The Crystal Egg is the answer.

The original short story was written in 1897 by H.G Wells (who I had the pleasure of meeting before the show, but more on that later) and is widely, yet unofficially, regarded as the precursor to his prolific novel ‘The War of the Worlds’. It tells the story of the unfortunate Charley Wace and the troubles that have befallen him and his near-enough-family, the Cave family, ever since his somewhat strange inheritance of a crystal egg. We are delivered the introduction to the show on a street in Seven Dials before being physically led into Cave’s shop of antiques and curiosities for the remainder of the show.

I personally love how many shows that take place in the Vaults choose to wander down the immersive path; my love for that specific type of theatre is part of why I love the Vaults as a performance venue so much. So removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, it is perfect for such endeavours. And even more so for period pieces. It’s generally quite dark and vacuous and has a very distinctive scent that somehow intermingles beautifully with the sensory refocus so integral to successful immersive theatre. The frequent rumble of the trains overhead actually enhance the piece, rather than distracted from it. In fact, there was a moment when the steady beat of the *chug chug* above us synchronised completely with the rhythm of the sound effects within the show and I wondered whether the creative team had taken it upon themselves to time it as such.  

My absolute favourite thing about immersive theatre is when the audience has the freedom to interact with as much of the performance as possible. I’m that audience member who wanders around looking at everything I can look at, touching everything I can/am allowed to touch, and talking to anyone who will talk back – which is how I stumbled upon Mr. Wells himself. We had a lovely chat about astronomy and books before I headed through to the street of Seven Dials and he found me just before the performance started to give me some further information on Jupiter. I am a big advocate for people speaking to immersive theatre performers when permitted; trust me, you will have some fantastic conversations – as actors within such a piece, we love the opportunity to go a little bit off-book with our characters.  

There is an official trailer that has been produced for the show (with an entirely different cast, except for the role of H.G. Wells – played both in the trailer and in the Vaults performance by Edwin Flay). Kime Chera’s video design provides us an extremely dramatic trailer…which tells you almost nothing about the stage show, I must admit. So, despite having watched the trailer prior to the show, it felt like I’d gone in to the performance with fresh eyes.  

Described as multidisciplinary, I have to say, I was expecting slightly more incorporation of other disciplines into the show. To be fair, there were lighting effects and live music (by a very delightful violinist, who I sadly could not find listed in the programme) and, obviously, live performance. But, me being never quite satisfied, I expected a couple more elements: some video perhaps; some voiceover; some aural isolation: something that set the show apart from standard live immersive theatre. We are offered a lovely package, as an audience, but I just thirsted for something more while within Cave’s emporium of wonders.  

The show is well-acted: we are treated to a wonderfully tortured Mr. Cave by Mark Parsons and a beautifully fragile Anna-Jacoby by Caroline Main. The rest of the cast have slightly less meaty roles to play, but give some great performances nonetheless. There is a delightfully awkward and overly polite exchange between Mr. Cave and Vincent La Torre’s Bosso-Kuni that made me laugh while simultaneously wonder whether someone was about to meet a sticky end. I did find Desmond Carney’s portrayal of Charley Wace slightly… over-harrowed, one might say, at times – but overall, he too was a solid performer.

For anyone with any interest in immersive theatre or historical fiction, The Crystal Egg has a lot to offer. Mike Archer’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ story, from what I can tell, has a few changes to the character’s relationships but remains true to the tragic themes of loss and instability – as relatable now as they would have been in the 1800s. Elif Knight’s directorial choices work in perfect tandem with the text; and the scenography design – undertaken by Jason Kelvin on set, Miriam King on costume, Simeon Miller on lighting, and Dave Holden on sound – combines to form a cohesive, fully encompassing experience for the audience. For approximately 80 minutes, I left 2018 and found myself right at home on the streets of Victorian London (as, quite clearly, did the one woman in the audience I spotted, decked out head to toe in Victorian garb) and for one more week, so can you. Until time travel is invented, this is the closest thing you’ll get to a first-hand, lived experience of 1897 science fiction.

The Crystal Egg is playing at The Vaults until 13th January 2018. For more information and tickets, see www.thevaults.london/the-crystal-egg.