As the crowd traipses through the gates of Caledonian Park, their babble mingles with performers' voices, welcoming us with murmurs of "tonight's the night". This confusion between audience and performers is at the heart of Babel, a massive immersive enterprise and rare collaboration between theatre company WildWorks and the Battersea Arts Centre as part of the World Stages London programme. But the epic promise of a "once in a lifetime celebration of London through theatre" didn't materialise.
The atmosphere is more like a festival than anything else, with all kinds of performances taking place at once before converging into a main event on a huge scale – at least in terms of visual spectacle. Pools of night amongst the trees pick out strange figures; peeling vegetable on a park bench, pounding at an old piano, dozing in a double bed. These scenes of ordinary life – a distorted arcadian vision – are patrolled by 'security guards' and when one of them muttered into his radio as I passed, "it's a large black shoulder bag", I was fooled for a moment. All very atmospheric.
But this kind of immersive theatre is hard to pull off, and the cast of 300 – many of whom are volunteers – feels a bit cobbled together at times. Given that part of the aim of this piece is to incorporate London's actual community into a play about society in general this is perhaps forgiveable, but the show could certainly use a bit of plot, too. When the main action kicks off, the storyline is thin and it is difficult to tell what the Babel myth has to do with it, except that it features a tower – a real clock-tower magnificently lit and transformed into a Sauron-esque surveillance tower by the projection of a blinking eye onto its clock-face.
The design is certainly spectacular, but what emerges in terms of plot is a hackneyed portrayal of a community being uprooted by the authorities. But other than basic indications of plot (separation and reunion) there is little to follow and the characters – meant presumably to represent powerful archetypes of subjugation and revolutionary spirit – are oversimplified. Still, despite the potential naffness of the play, an excellent jazz band, a witty performance poet and some brilliantly inventive visual detail rescued the evening.
Babel plays at Caledonian Park till 20 May.