VAULT Festival’s impact on the London theatre scene, in terms of promoting new work and creating a youthful buzz around a night at the theatre has, over the past seven years, been substantial. One of the forms that has reaped particular benefit has been immersive work, able to capitalise on the flavoursome environments of the under-station arches that form the Festival’s home and the programme’s growth into more spaces below ground.
Fight Night is immersive, interactive company Exit Productions’ second Vault Festival show. Last year’s boardgame-inspired Revolution saw teams fighting it out to seize control of the capital, one square, or locale, at a time. Vault’s dripping arches became a plausible rebel HQ following societal breakdown. Fight Night continues this site-responsive approach, framing its action in a seedy boxing club, whose struggling owner is determined to punch above his weight by independently broadcasting the fight we’re about to witness.
The show hinges on the fight itself – we are allocated a fighter to follow and encouraged to bet on the outcome with real cash prizes (£5!) at stake but the experience douses us in the broader context of this moment. How true-to-life the cheating, bribery, and various chicanery going on around us is, I couldn’t comment upon, but it makes for pleasingly liberating gameplay. The company establish a range of interactive structures around the match itself: you can dip in and out of backstage scenes with your fighter and the team in his corner; overhear altercations between the harassed match medic and edgy promoter; or gamble the chips we’re all allocated at the start with the gossipy blackjack host, or against the live-changing odds on the match. These various environments and opportunities are largely free-flowing and strongly encourage active participation, generally of the corrupt, or corrupting kind.
A few set pieces – joint media interviews, the weigh-in, the match itself – provide just about enough of an underpinning structure: the rest you need to uncover yourself. This process is made much more enjoyable by the consistently brilliant, believable, close-up performances by the cast, who have developed rounded, intriguing characters you can’t help rooting for (whichever side you’re on) and who keep a weather eye on involving everyone in their teams in the action. The design across a number of arches is atmospheric and authentic-feeling too: everything is in place to empower you to unlock the secrets behind the match – from some intriguing looking paperwork splashed across the medic’s abandoned table, to the photos stuck inside each fighter’s locker. It was only the articulation of the game mechanics that felt under developed: sacrificed perhaps to maintaining a believable, pumping atmosphere from the moment you enter the arena. Loud music, masses of conversation – some amplified, some not – multiple screens and extremely bright lights all combined to obscure the fast-paced introduction of the game-play itself. It seemed to involve discovering information and then sharing it with key members of the cast andcreative team, though how this then nuanced ever-changing odds or the outcome of the fight remained frustratingly unclear, especially as the post-match ending is rather abrupt. Somebody wins – it’s all very exciting, but you’re not entirely sure how, or why.
This is a richly conceived and detailed production, very successful as a piece and place in which to immerse yourself. Special mention must be made of Jonathan Holloway’s fight direction, which I guess has several different iterations and is pitch perfect: I feel like I’m watching the real thing. Yet as a show to play, a little more care to empower our involvement would raise the stakes and the pleasure of all the small good choices in performance and production the company have made. But then again, my team lost, so perhaps I’m simply bitter!