After action report: Secret Cinema: Bridgerton

(Or “The Poetical Effusions of Harley Widdicombe, of the Oxfordshire Widdicombes.)

(Or “Balls, and what I did there.”)

Harley Widdicombe and Kitty Salt; wearing his fiancee’s dress! Scandal!

I am a bit of a Secret Cinema fan, and was a tiny bit unenthused by their announcement of Bridgerton. A property marked, I thought, by the all-encompassing importance of a Full Dance card.

Like a teenaged school disco.

I hated school discos.

tl;dr I was very wrong, and this is the best immersive/interactive experience SC have done to date.*
(* And by “best”, of course, I mean “Most suited to my taste.”)

Immersive

The core of the experience was a well-dressed set of rooms: a club, a garden, a ballroom, a boxing ring, and a art salon. Through those, the Bridgerton characters wove the highpoints of Season 1. Cards and gossip, assignations and engagements, unrequited love and unsuitable matches, the beautiful promenading and the butch beating each other up in front of baying crowds, “scandalously” artistic endeavours and clandestine meetings with disreputable opera singers. You know the kind of thing. All well-acted and with that immersive touch I love so much.

You see, you see different aspects of the piece depending on where you stand, and which direction you choose to look. You might catch the look on Penelope Featherington’s eye as she catches sight of Marina and Colin’s attachment, or Antony watching Sienna sing… It’s pure serendipity, and feels somehow “private”, as if it were done just for you, when you see something others may have missed. And the cast were on fire – such precision in the casting, so faithful to the original in look and physicality. The way Lady Danby stalked the hall, the prim Lady Portia’s perfect demeanor, Lady Violet’s maternal manipulations of anyone who threatened her children, Prudence and Phillippa who’d just walk into Gormenghast as Clarice and Cora, the Bulgarian Muse in the Salon, Mme Delacriox’s composed/defensive air of the ingenue, Brindsley’s steely eyed defense of his Queen’s space, the Immortal Siena’s singing, the raucous joy of absolutely everyone in the gymnasium – they and the rest, simply spectacular.

I suspect somewhere backstage there was a superhero stage manager/assistant director type calling the book of who would be where when. At least in outline. If that was simply the actors keeping track then… My hat is not just off, it’s thrown into the air.

Adding to this was the “Lumiere brothers’ light show” – scenes from the series shown on massive white drapes rolled in on rails on the ceiling, as the SC actors portrayed key moments on a raised central stage. Spectacular, and such a well designed nod to the look of the show. If you simply went along to look, you’d not have been disappointed. If you didn’t want to interact, you wouldn’t. I don’t think I saw anyone uncomfortably joining in, just solid enthusiasm to be involved, or simply to watch.

Interactive

So good immersive stuff. And the dancing I was so worried about? Not like that at all. Every dance entirely amenable in a group, many working better and every now and then, I joined in.

Reader, I never do that.

I was egged on by others of the Positive People of Secret Cinema, by actors (Thank you Siena!) and by random passers-by.

Reader, that never happens.

Then there was the competition to be Diamond of Ball, which involved some neat mission-work passing you from character to character to do Stuff, getting signatures on a diamond card as you went. I think you then had to show a talent to the Queen, and then win by acclamation of the crowd. Nicely done, entirely opt-in. And becoming one of the Friends of Lady Whistledown; more missions – to find scandal – and a secret room to get in to. Well handled by the Scandalous Publishers, who were everywhere, it seems, at once and talked to everyone. (I hope the one who eventually lost her voice has recovered…) Ending in a nice denouement with the Queen as accuser, and an “I am Spartacus” moment where all the Friends claimed to be the Lady herself. Opportunities to get involved; perhaps not as many or as deep as at – say – Stranger Things, but enough for me. I might have missed more; there was probably something in the gymnasium, but I was too busy to visit until too late to get really involved.

However, what I thought was amazing was the little interactions with the characters. No, you wouldn’t be changing the narrative, but you’d be interacting with folk and becoming part of the story. Every conversation with every character at every visit was quite delightful.

On the last night, Daphne asked me for a dance, to be pulled away by her brother with a “You can’t dance with him. He’s an eccentric.”, And when I indignantly said I was a poet, he said that was worse. My little heart, what a line.

Read a poem on the nature of love “inspired by” Mr Brightside to the Baron Burbrooke, gave him the verse in print, to be told we were the kindest people he’d met that night…

Blurted out “the Viscount is f’ing the opera singer!” In the Whistledown room, to gasps from the Scandalous Publishers who were *so good* at their “Friends of Whistledown” herding.

Met the Duke of Hastings; asked who he was, because what else would you do, he handled it beautifully.

Introduced my intended to Henry Glanville of the Art Salon: “Oh, the Kent Carways? I hear there’s scandal there…” or something like that; lovely nod to character names and a great bit of “Yes, and…” work.

Asked Jericho to approve of my poetry, he got one of his coterie to judge it instead – lovely, inclusive, work, sir. Harley asked him for his signature on a book of his poetry – handed him a Sharpie, the only pen available, to be quizzed “What is this? Some sort of quill? He’s really good at being kind to those who warrant it, and the soul of snide to those who do not…

Reader, I did not.

Got to read to the Queen, rick-rolled her in verse, she was charm itself and played it up divinely. She also cut me to ribbons on an earlier visit; I concluded a poem “And Venus is your name, your majesty”. “It’s not. It’s Charlotte” she snapped back. Damn me, if that isn’t the perfect bit of improv.

Penelope Featherington was always just amazing. I got to be the “Voice of Lady Whistledown” behind the curtain once, which was just such a privilege and entirely down to her quick thinking – after she’d advised “play the game” when I asked how to gain entrance to the mirror room. I returned with a big handful of keys, and in she took me… (Keys and scandals were currency; to be gambled with, and spent on access to the best of places.)

Even better than that, she had this splendid habit if angling her body as she spoke to you. Which you mirrored, of course, so there was always an open space for others to join, which is just… very, very clever in an interactive when there’s a load more attendees than actors. You and she made two sides of a triangle, with an open side to encourage / allow others to fill in the gap. Very clever, that.

Gathered ephemera: and if you know “Africa Chloe”, thank them for me?

In-character

I tend to play defensively at interactive events. I try and take enough fun that I’ll enjoy myself no matter what. You might describe me, cruelly and accurately, as a show off. Or, as one of the PPSC asked, “How do you manage being so quiet and unassuming?” Yeah, OK. Fair.

Back in the day at Moulin Rouge, I made some little plays out of bits of songs, a trick originally devised by Bryony Hawthorn and Tim Baker. Got others to perform, had fun. For Bridgerton, I thought I’d be the performer, so I sketched up a poet persona and Harley Widdicombe was born. (The surname from a very dear friend to be sure I’d remember it.)

The plan? To read poetry to anyone who wouldn’t move fast enough to get away

The poetry? Well, I can’t write it, so…

The playlist

And golly it was fun: for me, and I think for the victims? The initial hook: I am going to read my poetry to the Queen – would you give me a moment to give your opinion?” The bait, so they got some control “Something about love? Or fame?” The dawning realisation of what they were listening to at some point during the song. “Relight my fire”, “Up where we belong” and “Firework” worked beautifully – folk tend not to know the first verses, but they know the chorus.

Just such a perfect excuse to approach anyone, actor or attendee and break the ice, hopefully sharing a bit of joy. Last night, Harley got the famous of the Ton to sign a book of “verse” I’d made – they were very good about it. Even Queen Charlotte!

I hope I didn’t get in anyone’s way, I caught a couple of actors at the wrong time, I think? They excused themselves neatly and escaped to their next cue on time.

It helped that some nights I had the most extra of costumes: the basic green was by my wife, made for our wedding. It still fits. Well, the coat does, the waistcoat was let out a lot.. The wig, though. Made my a friend who is a retired wig mistress, decorated with Union flags, Nelson’s signal at the battle of trafalgar, and two ships… Hard not to get noticed with a two-foot wig on.

That said – my best moment of showing off wasn’t in the wig, it was when my wife came along.

“A secret” was one of the things to bring, mine that afternoon was “If Lady Trifenia Carway is favoured Diamond of the Ball, I shall propose to her on the spot. I am in deadly earnest, I have the ring” Lady Trifena being my wife’s character name for the afternoon. One actor asked “Are you serious?”, and I showed them the costume jewellery ring I had brought. “Of course”…

So they gave me a minute on the mains stage, at half-four, and after the Duke proposed to Daphne, and Colin to Marina…. Harley Widdicombe proposed to Lady Trifena, starting by reciting the “poem” “You sexy thing”

…which in real life was the first song at our wedding, sung by her, played by the band she was in.

Back in your box…

In the end….

Yes, you could just get dressed up, show up, and watch the show, but there was a lot of very satisfying interactions as well – and a few missions from characters on top.

And a lot of space to roleplay at people. I mean, it’s important not to get in the way of the interactive stuff, or the immersive stories, but there’s space to be your own character. As your own performer.

I would love to know their design process; but whether they consider their audiences, or just throw every good idea they can fit into the show, they got it right for me this time.

Did I mentioned I enjoyed each and every moment at SC: Bridgerton? Best interactive work they’ve done, and best opportunities to play it up in character, I think. Top work.

Time for bed, Harley

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