Part of the cast of A Midnight Visit. Photo: Jeff Busby.
The thing with any choose-your-own-journey immersive experience is that if you don’t have a good time, you feel like it’s your own fault. Luckily, Broad Encounters’ A Midnight Visit, which recently landed in a North Melbourne warehouse after showings in Perth and Sydney, is a delightfully campy romp through an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired adult playground where you can’t go wrong, as long as you’re willing to dig in and get your fingers dirty.
You begin your journey in a funeral home waiting room. With a wall of Coles tissue boxes and a daggy 90s-style commercial playing on the television, it sets the tone for the whole production: more silly than sombre. You put on a black surgical mask as if you’re about to brave winter in Beijing, then get split into groups to be dropped into the space at different points. From there, it’s all up to you to roam through the space and make the most of your 70 to 90 minutes. It’s worth noting that A Midnight Visit is not wheelchair accessible and the dimly lit, two-storey space would be tricky to navigate for anyone with vision or mobility issues.
A little more verbal instruction from the ‘undertaker’ may help encourage participants to interact with the props and set from the get-go. On the night I attended, participants took a while to warm up to the experience. At first, everyone stood back as though attending a traditional theatre show, politely listening to the performer and avoiding touching any of the set, while I felt rude for poking about while a character was delivering a monologue. But with 34 rooms to explore, and so much detail tucked away in drawers, wardrobes and books, you have no time to waste.
That said, there are many ways to enjoy an immersive experience such as this, and trying to be overly methodical about seeing everything can also mean that you miss out on some excellent performances. The strength of A Midnight Visit lies in how it combines humour, music and physical theatre into a manic, eclectic and visually intriguing universe, reminiscent of Tim Burton. The aerial circus acts, dance, clowning and musical performances on loop pedals are particularly successful in that they work with the visual themes without requiring narrative support. The dramatic monologues, on the other hand, don’t stand alone so well, despite committed performances, as the format doesn’t really facilitate plot or character development unless you attend on multiple nights.
While the production makes frequent reference to Poe’s work and life, the array of rooms has no overarching theme. They range from Victorian bedchamber to bubblegum-pink ball pit to dystopian surveillance centre. Each one is imaginative and enjoyable, but some are a little rough around the edges. That, along with the plain black-draped corridors, the smell of paint, and the sound leak between rooms, makes the experience less immersive than it could be. The corridors especially make you conscious that you are walking between sets rather than exploring a cohesive world.
Yet, compared to Punchdrunk’s genre-defining Sleep No More, which is much more polished and sumptuous in design but equally flimsy when it comes to narrative (despite being ostensibly based on Macbeth), A Midnight Visit is more fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is important because the macabre only goes so far. Injecting some camp energy into the doom and gloom helps liven things up. The Rocky Horror-style finale confirms that things don’t need to make sense for you to have a great time. A Midnight Visit shows that there’s immense potential for the genre if it breaks free of literary texts, theatrical conventions, and its preoccupation with the gothic.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
A Midnight Visit
presented by Broad Encounters
Director: Danielle Harvey
Creative producer: Kirsten Siddle
Cast: Stee Andrews, John Marc Desengano, Megan Drury, Hudson Emery, Bri Emrich, Bobbie Jean Henning, Andy Johnston, Cameron MacDonald, Hannah Raven, Kristian Santic and Sarochinee Sawakchim.
30 July-15 September 2019
222 Macaulay Road, North Melbourne VIC