Performance review: When Night Comes, The Austral

A multisensory immersive experience that blends theatre and cocktails.
The lighting is blue. On the left a woman dressed up in metallic silver with matching headgear and long sharp nails is looking at a man in a black cloak and a mask on the right.

The latest offering by immersive theatre company Broad Encounters is a stripped-back, linear experience, involving small groups, small rooms, intimate performances and cocktails.

Once again taking over the Austral (a former cinema turned rug-clearance shop turned arts space), where the company previously staged Love, Lust, Lost (an immersive, seafaring, mythology-inspired work), When Night Comes sees the audience guided through a maze of rooms in small groups of about 10, experiencing the work in a linear fashion.

On arrival, the audience is robed and led into a small antechamber. A masked guide invites us to don plastic carnival-style masks before we are offered a drop of pomegranate juice (evoking both the Tree of Knowledge and the story of Hades and Persephone) and led into the first room – where our guide offers us a gin-based cocktail in a teacup and tells us we have been invited to join “the society” – a secret group whose sigil is an eye (isn’t it always an eye?) within a triangle.

Each room involves being served a bespoke cocktail (or mocktail for those on the dry) and a solo performance by a range of differently skilled actors and performers, structured around each of the senses. One of the performers, a goat-horned Puck-like creature, invites us to feel inside boxes marked with depictions of labia. A blindfolded performer performs magic in the dark. In another room, a siren sings and invites the audience to choose a shell for her to listen to and interpret. 

The linear structure of the work avoids some of the audience flow challenges created by the narrow corridors and poky rooms of the Astral, and the form also will satisfy those fans of immersive theatre who can’t handle the FOMO of the choose-your-own-adventure format (to be fair, it can be disheartening to find out that you missed a secret passageway, or that your mate got served oysters or had a one-on-one encounter with an actor who read their tea leaves – yes, these both happened at previous Broad Encounters shows I have experienced). 

Personally, I feel like some of the magic is lost in the linear structure, as a major appeal (for me) of immersive theatre (and particularly the Broad Encounters shows I’ve seen) is the sense of personal discovery, freedom to explore and the wildly impressive production design that lends itself to poking around.

When Night Comes is nevertheless very entertaining, and the Broad Encounters team have honed their formula of high-calibre, multidisciplinary performance drenched in saucy myth-inspired intrigue together with a healthy dose of classical literature, that holds their shows together. And they certainly know how to create intimate moments between actors and audience by removing the fourth wall, which makes immersive theatre so intoxicating for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

Read: Theatre review: The Last Train to Madeline, Meat Market Stables

The experience of When Night Comes is sure to be quite different depending on the group you are with, as the intimate setting and direct actor-to-audience chat inspires some people to chat back, which can make the experience feel more like a ride at a theme park than a theatrical experience.

In such close quarters, without a fourth wall and being plied with booze, the normal barriers between performers and audience are broken, and so – in my group – there were lots of giggles and it was harder to take the story seriously. My advice for those who want a more restrained experience is to try a weeknight – or book together with a group of friends so you can experience it together. 

Similarly to its previous successful works, Broad Encounters continues its tradition of making immersive works that heighten the full sensory experience of theatre, amp up the entertainment factor and have the potential to appeal to people who aren’t regular theatregoers.  

When Night Comes by Broad Encounters
The Austral, Melbourne
Co-directed by Kirsten Siddle, Mike Finch and Scott Maidment
Cast: Meg Hickey, Gina Tay Limpus, Elizabeth Dawson-Smith (aka Miss Friby), Jeremy Lloyd, Kristian Šantić

When Night Comes will be performed until 3 August 2024.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen