REVIEW: Butterfly Smokescreen (The Barden Party and Jetpack Theatre)

Review by James Wenley

[I’m on a Yacht]

The world’s only immersive theatre experience aboard a superyacht? That’s the bold claim made in the ads for Butterfly Smokescreen, and I don’t have any reason to doubt it. The notion of creatives getting the opportunity to make an immersive, murder-mystery theatre show taking place on an actual multi-million-dollar yacht in Aotearoa seems like a pipe dream, and yet, for the past two months, audience members dressed to the nines in 1920s fashion have been turning up to Auckland’s viaduct harbour for a truly memorable performance experience.

The Barden Party (founded by Laura Irish), who spent the past Covid years touring Shakespeare to people’s backyards, and Sydney’s Jetpack Theatre (helmed by Jim Fishwick, well known for high-concept improv shows in Aotearoa and Australia) are the groups behind the Butterfly Smokescreen experience. As they told The Spinoff, they had joked with a patron earlier this year that they had an idea for a high-budget immersive show set on a yacht. But this was no joke for the patron, who was willing to stump up some cash. They secured the Sea Breeze III, which usually charters for $100K per week. Barely one month later, they were opening the show.

The terrifyingly rapid turn-around from pitch to production has resulted in a remarkably cohesive experience. Part of the reason it succeeds is this is not just any murder-mystery set on a yacht, but the show’s story is based on an infamous real-life mystery involving the cream of Hollywood power players. In 1924 filmmaker Thomas Ince, “Father of the Western”, attended a party celebrating his 42nd birthday on a yacht owned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, arguably the most powerful man in America. A few days later, Ince was dead. A day after the party, the LA Times (rival to Hearst’s papers) carried the headline “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht!”. This was scrubbed in the next edition, and the public story was that Ince died from heart disease. Ever since, what happened at Ince’s party has been the subject of conjecture. Charlie Chaplin was said to be a guest at the party and a key witness, but he claimed he wasn’t there. Also said to be there were Louella Parsons (gossip columnist), Elinor Glyn (novelist and scriptwriter), Marion Davies (actor and Hearst’s partner) and Joseph Willicombe (loyal Hearst staffer). Butterfly Smokescreen’s creators mix fact and speculation to present their own version of what might have happened on the night of Thomas Ince’s birthday.

Getting to see how the 1% live on a superyacht is undoubtedly a novel part of the Butterfly Smokescreen experience for most audience members. We are required to wear supplied slippers lest we scuff the floor, and are forewarned not to go looking in draws and cupboards: the real owners’ stuff is still on board. Ticket prices for the show are steep, starting from $177.08. That’s a staggering amount for a totally untried show, but I’ll give credit to the team for pricing it sufficiently high to ensure fair wages for themselves. Also, to their credit: they give us our money’s worth. The first section of the show is delivered like a high-end themed 1920s themed party: there’s a bar to order drinks, and the cast actively interact with us, inviting us to join them in song, the Charleston, charades, and general merriment. But pay attention: there are many important character and plot points being laid out. I’m impressed with the cast’s ability to read the room, and adjust the level of interaction based on audience comfort: if you’re up for full conversation and card games, they’ll engage with you fully, or if you’d prefer to be a fly on the wall, they’ll leave you be.

Just as the themed party-style starts to wear out its welcome, Butterfly Smokescreen transitions into a more traditional style of immersive performance associated with the likes of UK’s Punchdrunk (Sleep No More), and we are able to roam the yacht with a little more agency as we observe the night’s events play out. It is here that the show really becomes something special, as we follow different combinations of characters and try to make sense of the tangled allegiances and unspoken desires of the party guests. You might be drawn to different characters and choose who you want to spend time with, for instance, Caleb James’ good-souled but desperate Ince, Laura Irish’s charming and ambitious Marion, an expert performer in Hearst’s (Wiremu Tuhiwai) domain, or Ollie Howlett’s charismatic and irresponsibly carefree Chaplin, whose relationship with a minor presents as troubling biography for those of us visiting from 2023. There’s a lot of character detail for us to appreciate, and the cast pull off making their characters seem suitably larger than life but also grounded in realism.

One challenge with immersive shows can be the feeling of FOMO: what else might you be missing out on elsewhere on the ship? Butterfly Smokescreen does a good job at counteracting this – generally you will encounter intriguing character interactions no matter if you find yourself starboard or stern. I’m cautious about cruising into spoiler-filled waters, but for me Butterfly Smokescreen doesn’t quite make its landing, and there’s room for the team to keep refining the payoff in the final section of the show.

But what a magnificent testing ground they’ve been able to enjoy onboard the Sea Breeze III in the Viaduct Harbour. There are credible plans to take Butterfly Smokescreen into international waters. Applying the lessons from their debut Auckland season, I do not doubt that the world’s only immersive theatre experience aboard a yacht has the potential to charm and intrigue audiences the world over.

Butterfly Smokescreen plays Viaduct Harbour 2nd June till 6th August.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.