It should be said that Hammer Studios have always had a special place in my heart. Their films were among the first horror movies I ever watched, firmly igniting my love of gothic fiction and supernatural Victorian narratives. These films – mixing high camp with genuinely unsettling imagery – cemented my love of the genre, so when I heard that the studio was putting on its first ever immersive theatre experience, I knew that I had to go, hoping that the things I loved about the company would translate effectively into a live setting. Thankfully, The Soulless Ones did not disappoint, artfully mixing gothic aesthetics with a compelling story, brought to life by a fantastic cast who were all committed to creating a truly immersive experience for the audience.
The Soulless Ones takes place at Hoxton Hall, a nineteenth-century music hall in the heart of East London. Audience members are handed a cape as they enter, and after a brief introduction from Dr Blythe (Stephen Fewell), are permitted to move freely through the building, stalking around like ghosts as the action begins to unfurl.
The plot itself is simple enough: a hive of ancient vampires, driven underground, strive to enact a ritual to restore them to life, a ritual which risks wiping them out forever. Vampire queen Carmilla wants to usher her clan back to greatness, while others – like the world-weary Mara – feel the risks might be too great. But along the way there are various other subplots going on too – the young vampire who wants her first taste of blood; the writer tricked into entering the hive; the doctor who wishes to prove the existence of vampires. It’s impossible to follow every narrative thread, but the central plot is straightforward enough that the audience are never left feeling completely lost, no matter which characters they choose to follow.
Admittedly, this doesn’t always work, as important plot points are too often missed, leaving the audience unsure about characters’ relationships and motivations. I had no idea the young vampire even existed until two thirds of the way through, and walking in on scenes that are almost over left me feeling like I was constantly trying to catch up. But this is also the best thing about The Soulless Ones. The fact that the audience chooses the stories and characters they want to engage with ensures that they feel like active participants throughout, and stories that don’t hold their interest can easily be avoided altogether. Similarly, choosing one character and following them from room to room allows for an intense and involving experience.
The cast are all uniformly excellent, staying in character for the entire duration of the show. Even in moments where they aren’t directly involved in a scene, the characters move about the building as their characters, gazing mournfully out of a window, or performing private rituals in their chambers. Mara (Lanna Joffrey) was the character I chose to follow most closely, purely because her character seemed more complex and layered than some of the other vampires. Watching her work – from barking orders at an ill-fated séance, to coyly seducing the human writer in an opium den – was an extraordinary experience, allowing those who followed her to truly see into her character’s mind. As such, other characters were neglected as I followed her, so criticisms of other characters being less complex may simply be down to the fact that I didn’t follow them enough, or see enough of their performances.
It should also be said that the building itself looked fantastic, and no expense had been spared when it came to creating authentic sets for the characters to move between. A door painted with Goetic symbols led to a moonlit graveyard, complete with crumbling graves and eldritch trees; another led to an opium den, filled with hookah pipes and Moroccan-style upholstery; another led to Queen Carmilla’s chamber, a room lit in such a vivid red light that it seemed to turn everything to blood. Even down to the tiniest detail, the crew had made every effort to create a truly immersive experience, and this did not go unnoticed by any of the audience.
The Soulless Ones draws on many conventional gothic tropes, creating something which feels both comfortingly familiar and chillingly unpredictable. By allowing the audience to descend into a hive of ancient vampires, all of whom are desperate for blood, they are pushed into a situation that feels genuinely dangerous, and in doing so, are treated to a theatrical experience quite unlike any other. Even for those who think they don’t like this type of interactive theatre, all horror fans should give this a go. You’d have to be soulless not to enjoy it.