A horrifying, traumatic experience we feared we’d never recover from. At every corner, we wanted to scream and run out of there: all the other poor wretches subjected to the same torment would have to fend for themselves. Oh, please, spare their hopeless, lost souls!
That was our childhood memory of the ticket queue at the London Dungeon, the horror-filled attraction which competes with Madame Tussauds, the Leicester Square Odeon, and the Sherlock Holmes Museum to be London’s most-visited institution that most Londoners have never been to.
The Dungeon has been spooking sightseers since 1974, and for many visitors, it's a big part of the overall London experience. Granted, they might also say that about a slap-up meal in Angus Steakhouse, a rickshaw ride through Covent Garden, or a cupful of roasted chestnuts bought from a man on a bridge. But how often do London’s journalists actually give these things a go?
So, it was time to revisit it, with as little scepticism as possible. Our ghastly ticketing experience came in a different age: the passage of time at the Dungeon has brought a more streamlined system which lets you get cheaper entry online while also suffering little-to-no lining up at all.
In we went — oh, and one other thing has changed since our childhood visit. The Dungeon has vacated its original, more atmospheric, but less practical home under the arches of London Bridge station. Nowadays it’s in the bowels of the former County Hall on the South Bank. It's right next to sister attraction the London Aquarium where it can presumably fulfil the sightseer’s thematic aim of combining one dimly-lit attraction with another.
Off with your cameraphones!
Here’s the idea behind the Dungeon. A ticket gets you a tour of its subterranean lair, which means a 90-minute sequence of actor-led “shows”. Ordered chronologically, each is given its own area, where characters tell you about a chapter of grisly London history, such as the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Plague, or the tale of razor-happy barber Sweeney Todd.
The tickets — which for adults range from £21 to a bloodcurdling £65 for the full souvenir package — reflect the fact that you’re essentially witnessing a piece of interactive theatre, courtesy of actors who have to recite the same gallows humour all day in silly voices. But there are also a couple of theme park-style rides packed in there too, one of which was closed off when we visited.
At the end, you get a complimentary drink in the tourist novelty ‘London pub’. The idea at all times, from the payment of the admission fee onwards, is to scare you. Lights flicker, folks in costumes promise to chop off your head, and jets of air simulate rats nibbling your ankles.
The tour begins with a herd of around 40 of us (it was a Friday in July) packed into a lift down to the Dungeon’s very depths. Laudably, for a venue which could easily surrender itself to being Instagrammed to within an inch of its life, the actors immediately demand the pocketing of phones and cameras.
There follows a bumpy boat ride intended to mimic Anne Boleyn’s final journey down the Thames to the Tower of London. It features the squirting of water in our faces, and a projection of the booming head of Brian Blessed atop a mannequin of Henry VIII. Because, why wouldn’t it? Once we’ve docked, an executioner character begins measuring people’s heads with a pair of novelty callipers to see whose has the most criminal dimensions. A little girl nonchalantly proffers a confession. She’s boiled a person and eaten their flesh. She’s either very, very good at playing along, or is now hopefully in police custody.
A bit of willing audience participation is more or less essential to keep the tour bubbling along. And — credit when it’s due — today’s group is a testament to the idea that London theatre brings out some of the most generous qualities in humanity: a readiness to suspend all cynicism; to be wilfully scared at the right moments, and to belly-laugh at almost anything presented as a joke. This lot do it so warmly that when one show requires a guardsman character to deftly trade lines with an animatronic, decapitated head of Guy Fawkes, we almost expect a standing ovation and the tossing of flowers.
Bravo, audience. They came, they forked out their airport-fresh banknotes, and they even got ‘into’ it. One performance we watch finds an East End barmaid in her tavern narrating to us the story of Jack the Ripper. It’s actually a very atmospheric showpiece. Lights go on and off, furniture falls to the ground, and a knifeman flashes into and out of view. The boiling-and-flesh-eating little girl is now screaming, terrified. The Dungeon always gets its revenge.
Those shows which are much less engaging see the actors regurgitating their lines hastily or indistinctly — could they be gently microphoned? — or without really committing to the ridiculous but reassuring mockney accents that must, surely, be stipulated in clause #1 of their contracts. The sound issues in particular are problematic when the herd is as big as it is, all those bodies getting in the way; the fresh cotton in their newly-purchased Union Jack backpacks absorbing the quickfire historical repartee emanating from the actor’s mouths.
At least there are moments when the attraction appears to know its limitations, and to play around with its own herd mentality. The experience of fumbling with dozens of others down dark corridors, and — better yet — an endless hall of mirrors, is kind of unsettling and immersive in its own way. Until, that is, you see a fire escape sign. Although that was spotted in a corridor which leads out of a show about the 1666 Great Fire of London, and might have been a gesture of supreme irony.
Teaching you a lesson
So, as to the question of who the hell actually comes to the London Dungeon: well, it sort of seems to be Planet Earth at large. And then there’s also Tony from Croydon — who is mercilessly hauled up before the magistrate in a show set in an eighteenth-century courtroom, and charged with being from Croydon. There's also “Little Willy, the accomplice of the highwayman, big Dick Turpin. Would you like to be well hung, Little Willy?” Just imagine how that would have gone down with the City banter merchants and sloshed south London hen parties on one of the Dungeon’s after-work late openings.
Then again, is it really locals who come en masse? By the coachload, by the Boeing Jet, by the Duck Tour paddling its way down the South Bank? Maybe they should. There’s no doubting that there is, actually, some interesting history to be learned at the Dungeon. For one, we had no idea that the Lord Mayor Thomas Bloodworth more or less stood idly by and let London burn during the Great Fire.
But the Dungeon really appeals to those who aren’t here long enough to tour the blue plaques of Bloomsbury, but who still want access to the stories and myths of this great city. In the gift shop of history, it is the blood-splattered plastic toy axe, not the 500-page book about medieval tithe barns. Meanwhile, as intrepid geeks who are fortunate enough to actually live here, we’re bound to say that we feel that a bawdy, Blackadder-style whistlestop tour of London through the ages is amusing enough on a rainy day, sure — but it can’t compare to the real thing. The history is there in the fabric of London’s buildings and is ready to be seen.
Arguably the Dungeon was a really forward-looking attraction when it opened. It helped pioneer the idea of immersive theatre to an extent, and so too the idea of the weird, novel, or ironic London ‘experience’. And whether it’s at a crazy golf course in the City, or at a rainy rooftop cinema, the ‘experience’ is just the sort of thing that millennials are happy to spend lots and lots of money on — rather than, say, shopping, or looking after the homes or cars that they don’t own.
The Dungeon was less of a torture chamber than we predicted. Tasteless? Don’t be so prissy. Overpriced? Possibly, possibly not (just look at the price of traditional sit-down theatre in the West End). Entertaining? Largely, yes, but pick a quiet slot when you can actually hear the actors. Kitsch? Appallingly so. But — whisper it on pain of being hung, drawn, and quartered — you do feel London wouldn’t quite be London without it.