If you’ve been to site-specific arts events before, like Punchdrunk orBum Bum Train or Theatre Delicatessen, you’ve probably ricocheted from one scene or event to another, feeling somewhere between a film extra and a peeping tom.

Heritage Arts and the crew behind Silent Opera bring you closer to the action and whilst there’s a certain amount of herding involved, you’re much more directly engaged with the performers and the drama.

Snap on a pair of Sennheiser HD headphones, snap OFF your mobile, and find first a beanbag or a patch of crowded floor in the ‘attic’ space of the Old Vic Tunnels rigged up as the realistically shabby student squat in which Rodolfo and Mimi fall in love: you can almost smell the stale joints and congealed pizza.

The orchestra’s a recording but the technician in charge is also a trained conductor who can adjust its speed to accommodate the singers: he might not be flailing his arms in an evening suit, but it works.

You don’t really need to know the story of La Bohème either, many of the audience were opera virgins and it’s sung in modern English with laugh-out-loud libretto lines like ‘fetch the Cillit Bang’ and ‘here’s a feast worthy of Come Dine With Me: Beans’ enriching what’s basically a story of two boy-meets-girl romances at the end of which one dies.  As with most modernised Bohèmes, Mimi’s condition is updated from ‘consumption’, here to anorexia, but we wish they’d go the whole hog and make her a drug addict, it’s time for a Mimi Winehouse.

So when in the shabby flat the students decide to go off to the Christmas market and then to the night café, it’s YOUR arm they’re pulling to get up off your beanbag, and you join the drunken queue for the nightclub where Musetta’s singing, and eventually you’re standing at Mimi’s bedside when she dies.

You’re certainly carried along, although less emotionally than you might expect for such a heart-tugging tale – the headphone music didn’t seem to swell as passionately as in conventional theatre settings, and we weren’t quite swept away by the romance and the beautiful tunes although Emily Ward’s Mimi was in fine voice.

It’s a young cast – when will someone do one of these fantastic immersive site-specifics with established opera singers – some of the acting is clunky, and despite the smooth shepherding of the 150-strong sellout audience up and down stairs and through the different scenes, neither the singing nor the on-stage movement was quite as fluid as it could be, although we were quite early in the run.

We’d have liked even more direct engagement between the actors and audience, in the Gatehouse’s Traviata, Violetta does a lapdance, and Bohème’s Musetta is no less a tart.  Being allowed to bring your wine would help the atmosphere too.

But it’s such an enjoyable night out – well worth the ticket price of £20 – with a young and cool Superdry-chic audience many of whom seemed to be on date night, and supported by a good popup bar, Hammer Horror flick club cinema, comedy, music, interactive film, and the rest of the Vault experience.

Vault at the Old Vic Tunnels runs until 26 February.  La Bohème is Thursday-Sunday at 7.30pm, runs 2 hours 30 including interval.  Tickets £20 + £1 restoration levy, online here.

Image by Max Letek

Londonist Originally published on Londonist