Being a reviewer at an immersive theatrical production like Flabbergast Theatre’s The Swell Mob felt like being an undercover cop. Do I fully infiltrate the performance, act like I’m one of the crowd or do I take myself off to the side, make notes and look like I’m marking the student teacher? I wrestled with this dilemma as I waited in line for my ticket to be scanned. However, after I collected my bag of two five pound notes from the wretched mad woman character at the door and walked into the 19th century world of  pickpockets, spivs, soldiers, wenches, singers and puppeteers that The Swell Mob creates, I knew that there was going to be nowhere to hide.

The Swell Mob cast. Photograph © Rod Penn

There were two spaces. The first consisted of a bar, small stage and several tables and chairs. The bar had real booze and a real 19th century barman, although the real EFTPOS machine for the real credit cards paying for the real booze ruined the illusion slightly. However, I’m nit-picking. While the barman was static, the other actors moved about the room in character giving the punters the opportunity to interact to the extent they felt comfortable. Immediately, an attractive pickpocket offered her hand to me which I kissed, and then I watched the card game. These moments were interposed with events to capture the whole audience such as a young starlet singing Dove Sono from The Marriage of Figaro and the Habanera from Carmen, a mysterious puppeteer and puppet appearing to poison a young man groomed for the upcoming fistfight, a wrestling match between two hapless wenches fighting over a man, and a music hall singalong.

Having found what I thought was a safe chair, I overlooked the blood spots on the table and for my penance, a young solder sat down and invited me to part with one of my five pound notes to see who was best at the knife game or “five finger fillet”. The soldier had a real knife and his prowess was intimidating. Fortunately, my weapon was a small stick dipped in ink. Not surprisingly, I lost my five pounds and my fingers were covered in red ink to my shame. However, for a few minutes, I was the centre of attention – and that’s the joy of this experience.

The second space was for the fist fight ring. Fortunately, my remaining five pounds bought me a ringside view and the fight was as convincingly staged as a fake fight can be. There may have been a plot to all of this, but I became too distracted to grasp it, and in the end, it didn’t matter. I kissed a pickpocket’s hand, played five finger fillet, sang bawdy songs, witnessed a fist fight and danced with a buxom wench. In order to get something out of this experience, you have to give. Perhaps, a few more interactive options for the number of punters wouldn’t have gone astray, but The Swell Mob (presented by Adelaide Festival Centre as part of Adelaide Cabaret Festival) is original and worth the investment.

The Swell Mob plays at Artspace, Adelaide Festival Centre until June 22


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