Monday, 25 April 2016

INTERVIEW - Bertie Watkins of CoLab theatre

picture credit Chrystal Ding

SOMEWHERE in a warehouse in deepest South London strange things and shady dealings are afoot.
An undercover police operation is underway to bring down the Don of the criminal underworld.
But this isn't the latest covert operation by the Met's boys in blue. No, this is CROOKS, a play in which the audience decide the fate of the police, the drugs baron and all his associates.
Conceived by theatre collective CoLab, the show is described by its writer and artistic director Bertie Watkins as pervasive theatre.
"We created CROOKS so that the audience can be very much at the heart of the narrative," he explains.
"It's a black comedy and a bit cockney gangster and anyone who likes Guy Ritchie films will love it.
"It's also an intense and immersive show in that every person who comes through the door has a reason to be there - they play a part and will have as much a role in the story as the actors performing for them."
Split into groups of 10 the audience meet at a secret warehouse in Borough before being taken on a journey into the criminal underworld.
They are taken to different rooms and settings during the 90-minute piece and are encouraged to get involved by asking questions and interacting with the actors.
Their decisions about what happens to the characters in each scene informs the direction of the play and ultimately the ending.
Scenarios include being able to save a captured cop, play Russian roulette with the Don and take part in a major drug deal in the notorious Cockney Cartel.
Audiences must hold their nerve, test their skills in subterfuge and interrogation, and, above all, not get caught as they go head to head against the gangs of the seedy London underworld.
It is, says Ben, great fun but also a little sinister.
"The last show we did in this style was really exciting and audiences loved it so we were keen to do another one," he tells me.
"It was brilliant coming up with the idea and then creating it. Drug cartels was quite a hard subject to research but I'm a huge Guy Ritchie fan so I drew on his films for inspiration. I also looked at news stories like the recent Hatton Garden robbery.
"The setting too just lends itself to this sort of plot - it looks like a dodgy drugs den - and as the company is based here and I live not far from here it made sense."
Although Bertie says it is "a night of incredible fun" in which people can act out and channel their inner James Bond, he admits it was a challenge to create.
"It's quite complex as we have 10 different characters and four different endings so depending on the audience reactions and decisions, it can mean a different ending each night," he says.
"There are bullet points but there is no script in the traditional sense so the actors are on their toes all the time.
"Anything can happen and it's really unpredictable, although we do create boundaries and the actors help the audience in their choices, are directed by them and answer their questions.
"The audience can decide what happens to the Don - they can let him go, hand him over to the cops, betray his gang, hide evidence or give it up - it's great fun but their choices affect the outcome of the evening.
"But we've had to approach it like a military operation - it's been challenging and the timings are crucial."
Although Bertie says the audience are encouraged to be part of it, they don't have to be and can just turn up to watch it all unfold.
"We don't want it to be intimidating - we want it to be fun so if they want to step back they can," he says. "However, we find that they do want to interact which makes it really exciting and much more interesting.
"We want them to come along and expect something that isn't what they would normally experience going to the theatre. They have to be ready for anything!"

CROOKS is on at a secret location in Borough until Friday, May 20. Tickets cost £22. Visit for full listings.

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