First, we are led into a room with a table map of 1605 London, where we are given a bit of background on a video screen to the events we are about to witness and instructions on how to work the virtual reality headsets. Next we are taken into the dungeons of the Tower of London itself (actually the Tower Vaults next door) where it is cold and dark and there is the sound of shrieking from tortured Catholics. We are in a prison and greeted by a sick-looking prisoner. It appears we are Catholics, so why is the Officer of the Crown treating us – if not exactly politely – at least as fellow human beings? Is it a trick? I ask him. (He ignores me.) Donning black hooded capes we proceed through the still dimly-lit rooms where we are greeted by Lady Cecil, who explains she is recruiting us as spies to infiltrate the group of conspirators planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the day of the Opening of Parliament, thereby killing the King, his family and untold numbers of parliamentarians and bystanders. A little later, in the Duck and Drake tavern (where the real conspirators met) we decide if we will obey Lady Cecil and become spies or remain true to the Catholic faith and become terrorists. We choose the latter.
That’s just the first half. It continues much the same, as we are led by often mysterious figures from room to room in this cold, dark dungeon, trying our best not to trip over the scenery or – horrible thought – to get left behind in the gloom. Now and again we pause to sit down and place the VR headsets on our heads and allow ourselves to be taken into the heart of 1605 London, now flying on a tripwire high above the City streets, now on a boat being rowed across the Thames by Guy Fawkes himself. (This last was nothing less than thrilling.) When the events we all know about come to a head we find ourselves trapped in a cage and only finally let out to end up in a room where we are told what happened after the gunpowder plot was discovered and then to have our photos taken and be led out through the shop (of course).
Time Out described these goings-on as a ‘theme park ride’ but they could not be less so. This is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s not just the darkness. It is an experience quite unlike anything I’ve ever known, a miracle of logistics – there are several casts and audiences are admitted in groups of no more than 16 every ten minutes – creativity and technical prowess.
I can’t say I enjoyed it. I did admire it, I was even at times quite frightened by it, and once I’d managed to find out how to put the headset on properly (I missed most of the tripwire business due to my ineptness) the VR sequences absolutely took my breath away. It is the nearest to being transported in toto back to 1605, and it was worth the visit for those sequences alone.
Had it been up to me I would have allowed to practise with the headset before the event began. I would also, I think, have included a real live opening scene between Catesby, Fawkes and the other conspirators as they explained what they were plotting and why, rather than have the ‘backstory’ told us by a voice from a screen. After all nothing, not even VR, can replace the oddly thrilling experience of having real live flesh-and-blood actors ordering you around peremptorily in a cold dark dungeon right next to the Tower.