One of the main appeals of video games and action films is power-fantasy fulfilment: step into a digital world and you can exercise abilities far greater than any you might be capable or bothered to develop in real life. If the game’s any good, you can experience being a professional athlete, an elite soldier or a superhuman, with next to no effort or consequence. It is this same promise of power- fantasy fulfilment which The Grift, the brainchild of Tom Salamon, trades on: the website claims, “The Grift sweeps its audience into a thrilling adventure, turning everyday theatre goers into master con men”. The Grift takes place in Bethnal Green Town Hall Hotel, during which the audience is split into small groups and given a linear set of tasks to accomplish, which have some relevance in completing a “final swindle”. The tasks are divided into two sets: solving puzzles and performing cons, all conducted under the guidance of a series of characters that provide narrative exposition. As a long-time fan of heist and con artist films, I was looking forward to this night.

Yet, this production left me feeling patronised and impotent rather than skilful and empowered. Primarily this is down to pragmatic constraints on the possibility of failure that The Grift can grant its audience participants. With the cheapest tickets at £35, the company is reluctant to run the risk of disappointing their audience by allowing them to fail. And as each team is rotated around the different challenges, they must prevent a team becoming stuck in a challenge room and throwing everything out of sync.

As such, all of the puzzles are too easy, the cons transparent and contrived, and the handholding painfully infantilising (the characters in each section practically complete challenges for you if a member of the team looks like they might be struggling). Part of constructing a decent power- fantasy is in tricking the participant into feeling that they have achieved something, and if there’s no challenge or serious risk of failure, there’s no achievement. This is most apparent in the final ‘swindle’: a good finale to a game should be a test of all the skills that the participant has learned throughout. Unfortunately, The Grift has nothing to teach.

This would all be forgivable if the narrative is engaging enough, but this is not the case. The story is slight, poorly told, and genuinely not worth recounting. Of course, this is influenced by the teams encountering characters in a different order (due to the rotation of the challenges), calling for the kind of watertight narrative thread unaffected by chronology. As a result, theatrically The Grift feels episodic and plodding, without real momentum. The characterisation is either non-existent or one-dimensional and irritating, with the dialogue seemingly aimed at children (barring when it becomes needlessly raunchy).

The actors are largely a delight and should be credited for doing their best with embarrassing material. A few have the sense to ham things up with absurd improvisations, likely too clever to feature in the original script. A highlight is a pretty mean-spirited joke aimed at Morrissey, though it did seem to risk insulting everyone with depression as well. Stage is not the medium to best demonstrate sleight of hand: the exaggerated movement need to convey clear visual story-telling for those further away makes production more Punch and Judy than David Blaine.

At one point in the evening, I was handed a negroni, included in the price of admission. It’s a favourite cocktail, and with only four ingredients it’s almost impossible to mess up. However, this one was warm, served by the thimbleful, and none of the ingredients complimented each other as one was missing. It was emblematic of the production – initially promising, ultimately disappointing, the whole far less than the sum of its unimpressive parts. The only legitimate swindle seems to be the disparity between the fun promised by the premise and the tepid bang the audience received for their not insignificant buck. Don’t be a schmuck – save your money, go to another play, and watch Ocean’s 11 again.

The Grift is playing at the Town Hall Hotel until the 25 March 2018

Photo: Scott Rylander