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Choose your own adventure in a murky 1800s taproom

Cabaret Festival

Submerging yourself in the bewildering world of immersive theatre show The Swell Mob is like fulfilling a childhood dream of stepping through the TV screen and living out your favourite video game, says co-director Jordan Chandler.

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UK company Flabbergast Theatre believes “all theatre should be engaging and sweaty” – and its production The Swell Mob shows just how broad the definition of “cabaret” is in the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Incorporating a mix of clowning, puppetry, acting and music, it re-creates the world of an 1800s taproom in London, complete with all the questionable characters, tales and bacchanalian shenanigans you might expect to find there.

Audience members can choose their own adventure, interacting as much or as little as they like in the unfamiliar and unsettling world.

Adelaide Cabaret Festival artistic director Julia Zemiro, who saw the show herself in Edinburgh, is a big fan, and UK critics have also been wowed by the experience they variously describe as exciting and spellbinding, bewildering and bizarre.

Here, Jordan Chandler, who co-directs The Swell Mob with Henry Maynard and also performs in the show, provides a little more insight into what to expect from the unexpected.

Co-director and performer Jordan Chandler.

The Swell Mob is said to transport audiences to an 1830s taproom. What does this taproom look and sound like?

The taproom has a number of different facades. The first has an essence of faded decadence, with worn wooden fixtures, old crumbling walls, nicotine-stained wallpaper, faded gold trimmings and hordes of knic-knacs, laden with clues hidden in every nook and cranny, ready to be discovered by its audience.

It sounds like a rowdy East London tavern, with folk jigs, reels and hornpipes entwined with the general hubbub of the bar. And don’t forget the sense of smell. You’ll run into those, too, ranging from stale ale, to sulphur, to gunpowder.

There are also the secret rooms, but you’ll have to persuade the Swell Mob dwellers to trust you, before you can see those!

What kind of characters are unwitting “visitors” likely to encounter there – and is there a story they’re seeking to share?

There are 10 beautifully absurd characters to meet in the world; they each have their own heavily detailed story to tell, but they’ll make you work for it. We range from laudanum addicts, to orphans, to opera singers. To be honest, we all dabble in a bit of laudanum sipping from time to time, depends on how we feel and who we meet on the night.

Each character has a quest to solve, alongside the main story arc, which you can chose not to accept if you wish. But be warned, every decision you make with us has an effect on the direction your night will take and how the night will end… or not end.

We’ve heard talk of “fogle-hunters”, “flimpers” and “sneezers” … what, pray tell, are these? 

Ha! Well, it’s what we refer to as crooked talk. Back in the “olden” days, “fogle-hunters” was slang in East London for silk handkerchief thieves.

“Flimp” means to hit in the face and “sneezers” was a term used in prison to describe snuff boxes, which were usually hidden up small crevasses, to sneak in behind bars (you know where I’m coming from!).

Are there puppets, too? (Some of us are a little scared of puppets.)

Shhhh, the master hates being referred to as a puppet!

Bizarre, uncomfortable, unmissable, spellbinding and bewildering are among the words critics have used to describe The Swell Mob. How would you sum up the experience?

Unfortunately, as Henry and I direct and perform in the show, we can’t experience the world through new eyes. But I’d go as far to say that it’s like fulfilling a childhood dream of stepping through the TV screen and living out your favourite PlayStation game.

You never know who you’ll meet with The Swell Mob. Photo: Rod Penn

Immersive theatre can be an intimidating concept for more timid theatre-goers, so just how involved are audience members expected to be in the taproom shenanigans?

I won’t lie, if you don’t muck in, you won’t reap as many benefits. It’s a free roaming space, so there’s lots to discover and people to meet.  The feedback we’ve been receiving from our London run is, “I wish I’d interacted with more people”.

But fear not, we’ve absolutely got something for every type of theatre goer. And remember, there’s a real bar, with real booze to help you feel at ease!

We look forward to welcoming you into our world.

The Swell Mob will perform at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Artspace from June 8-22 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which runs from June 7-22. Read more InDaily Cabaret Festival preview stories here.

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