Event review: Keep Calm And Carry On, by Parabolic Theatre

By - Tuesday 12th December, 2017

An invasion force is on British soil. Our nation is in peril. YOU must decide what to do

Photo by Parabolic Theatre, used with permission.

Accompanied by an eminent military historian and his (also my) two sons, one studying history at A level and the other set on doing so, I went to see Parabolic Theatre’s latest production on Friday 8th December at the COLAB Factory near London Bridge.

Parabolic is a Croydon-based company that specialises in immersive drama. This means that instead of merely watching, the audience interacts with what’s presented as a real-time, real-life experience. Attending a previous production, I’d received email ‘briefings’ in advance, giving information about an ongoing investigation into a seemingly paranormal occurrence. The (intended) effect of these was to make me turn up questioning everything that I then witnessed.

Situation critical in the strategy room.
Photo author’s own.

But this is something very different. Keep Calm And Carry On is the company’s take on alternate history. It’s set in 1940, during a Nazi invasion of Britain. The audience learns that it is in fact a gathering of designated survivors, some of us also members of parliament, protected in a bunker during this time of extreme national peril, and charged with deciding how to respond.

This sort of thing isn’t just up my street – it’s a exuberant party in said street with cake, lashings of lemonade and yards of Union Jack bunting. I absolutely loved the show. We were briefed about a world interestingly different from the one that we’ve learned about at school – in which, for example “God save the king!” somewhat worryingly refers to the Nazi-sympathising Edward VIII – then taken down to our underground bunker, a space divided into a meeting room for MPs, another for the staff of the Ministry of Propaganda, the communications area and maps-and-strategy-corner. Messages from the outside world began to come in and within minutes, as far as I was concerned, the Panzer divisions were rolling towards Leatherhead. But I’m the family’s amateur enthusiast. What did the experts make of it?

Use mustard gas? Evacuate the capital?

If anything, they were even more delighted. One son immediately stood for prime minister and made a confident speech to the house, revealing himself to be a hawkish hardliner willing to take some pretty brutal decisions. As the invasion scenario unfolded in a series of urgent updates from military chaps, crackly radio announcements and messages via links whose security was then called into question, we were required to make a series of ever-more-difficult calls. Stop the invaders by using mustard gas? Evacuate the capital? Tell the population the truth about the worsening national situation, or protect morale by being economical with the truth? Blow London’s bridges to cut off the advance? The prime minister took a tense call from Washington, and urgently updated the house. The commanders on the ground demanded orders. Delay costs lives. Misjudgements could cost far more. To take suspension of disbelief up to this level is ever so exciting.

Photo author’s own.

But the happiest man in the room was our military historian, now MP for Sittingbourne in the Conservative interest, elected Minister of War after a highly persuasive – and far more accurate than most present could have realised – speech setting out his knowledge of battle strategy. (This is a man who has lectured at Sandhurst.) Even loud shouts from fellow MPs requesting that he attend an emergency sitting of the house to address the latest developments could scarcely roust him from the corner where, along with his senior military advisers and surrounded by pins in maps, he ecstatically directed a series of manoeuvres across southern England.

There was more going on during the invasion than I’ve said, but careless talk costs lives and may also cost future viewers of this superb production. It’s high risk stuff: the actors must have rehearsed many different scenarios depending on the decisions that each audience makes, and have to think on their feet. It’s executed with terrific flair and skill. If you don’t want to play a starring role, you don’t have to: you decide your own level of involvement and depending on whereabouts you choose to go, everyone present has a slightly different experience.

Parabolic hopes to put on more performances in the new year, and let’s hope so: this is one to get to if you possibly can. I’d have loved it, of course, if the show had been in Croydon, but I can’t help also be pleased that the company is performing in at a central London venue. It deserves a more-than-simply-local presence.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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