Hey you! Yeah, you in London! You like immersive theatre and/or experiences right? I mean, they are all around us lately. Just look at Secret Cinema, Twin Peaks and You Me Bum Bum Train to name but a few. Well they think we like them anyway. And the latest newbie on the block is Django Bango, a Wild West themed pop-up in East London.
Built entirely out of wood, Django Bango is a temporary Wild West themed ‘town’ complete with a church, some houses, shops, street food, game stalls and a bar. There are also actors roaming around dressed up as Wild West characters to add to the immersive feel. Visitors are encouraged to “eat, drink and spit like a cowboy” while drinking beer and speciality Wild West cocktails and listening to live country music. ‘Yeehaw’ or ‘no way Jose’? We went along to the launch night to find out.
Just a few roads away from Whitechapel tube station within a huge, blocky, windowless building sits Django Bango. (It is billed as being in the ‘Brick Lane area’ but this is not really true: it would take you around 10-15 minutes to walk from Brick Lane and while I have no issue with this I can only assume they didn’t think Whitechapel was cool enough. Either way, don’t go to Brick Lane because you’ll be in the wrong place.) You could be forgiven for walking straight past the place had it not been for the cowboy sitting outside on a bale of hay with a sign pointing you in the right direction. The security guard next to him was probably not meant to be part of the ‘immersive experience’ but he didn’t seem to want to move so I took a photo of him anyway.
Inside the building it wasn’t really what I was expecting. Django Bango is not the first thing you come across, instead you are greeted by a lazer-tag place just off to one side of the building, a bunch of indoor football pitches and rows and rows of old arcade games. It was vaguely reminiscent of the set of Mr Robot except there were no sexy or mildly dirty hackers in sight.
However, ignore the arcade games (if you can) and walk around the corner past the football pitches and you’ll arrive at the entrance to Django Bango. Once through the door it’s fairly impressive, they’ve knocked up the shells of entire buildings out of wood, each with separate rooms, windows, lighting and staircases so you can even go upstairs in most of them. I say “shells” because these buildings do seem a bit thrown together and you can tell they are just made out of sheets of wood, you can see the beams and joins everywhere. It reminded me a bit of the fake town they built in Blazing Saddles, but y’know, not quite as shitty and 2D.
Nearly all the buildings have little secluded rooms with seating and tables inside so you can sit on the bales of straw with your mates and drink in the booze and the scenery from your vantage point. It’s a nice idea as we all know that the problem with going to most places in London, especially pop-ups, is that there is never anywhere to f-ing sit down! If you are super organised you can even reserve rooms or entire houses if you’re going with a big group to ensure you will get somewhere to rest your weary butts. However, the cost of reserving the rooms is a whopping £50 for two hours! Although this does include a bucket of Sol beers as well, this still feels pretty expensive considering that it doesn’t even cover the cost of your entrance to the venue, so you still have to fork out £10 each for that too. With the best will in the world, I don’t think any number of bottles of Sol are worth that much.
In the middle of the ‘town’ is the bar, but sadly you don’t have to walk through any saloon doors to enter as it’s just… well… there. Some of my buddies were pretty disappointed by the lack of saloon door action citing that this was one of the main characteristics of the Wild West. Very true, but I tried not to dwell on it too much. Never mind hey? Let’s have a drink!
The bar serves a couple of standard lagers on tap as well as bottles of the usual suspects, spirits and wine. If you’re feeling adventurous, like me, then you can opt for one of their special Wild West cocktails. I went for the Badlands Brew (Tequila, apple juice, fresh lime and Agave, topped up with Prosecco) as it seemed quite fitting with the experience. It was quite nice actually, refreshing and sweet with a bit of a Tequilla zing although it probably isn’t going to win any mixology awards. On a more practical note, all of the drinks were priced around £4-6ish and the bar does take cards.
Alongside the bar, the church is probably the main focal point of the town with it’s spooky grey paint job, trailing ivy and gravestones outside. As with the other buildings there are multiple rooms with chairs and tables inside for kicking back in. You can even visit the confessional booth if your cowboy guilt is weighing you down, although I was disappointed to see that the booth was empty and there was no priest inside to listen to your sins. A missed opportunity for some great interaction with the actors I thought. In fact, the actors were generally quite thin on the ground and I only saw one saloon madam who just shouted at me the whole time I was there. Shame.
After necking our drinks we felt it was time for some sustenance. All food orders have to be paid for at the bar first which means you have to battle through crowds of people waiting for drinks which is a bit annoying. But once that is done it was a fairly quick process to get hold of some actual food. My friends opted for the Chilli Con Carne which was served with succotash (mixed beans) and cornbread, and then the Cowboy Nachos which are exactly as they sound. Both dishes were fine, edible but not particularly delicious. You could probably make yourself something similar if not better at home.
I chose the Hog which was basically slow cooked pork in a brioche bun with slaw. Again, this was by no means the best pulled pork I’ve ever had, but to be fair to them the serving was generous and it was by far the best thing on offer. Being a fan of good food maybe I place too much emphasis on the food factor but I couldn’t help but wonder why the Django Bango team didn’t ask established street food traders to take care of this instead? Getting Breddos Tacos, SmokeStak or Anna Mae’s in residence would have been much more of a draw in my opinion.
Once fed and watered you are free to wander around the town at your own leisure. It’s fairly small so probably only takes five minutes to weave through crowds from one end to the other. In terms of entertainment there are a couple of stalls with cowboy-esque games for you to play: there is a spitoon where you literally have to spit mints into a target (am I the only one who thought that was a bit gross?), or a catapult range where you have to try and knock plates featuring 90s celebs off a shelf. (Below is our very own Joachim showing us how it is done, kinda.)
At one point in the night a flash mob appeared. Out of nowhere a group of ten or more actors and singers started simultaneously singing ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast in soft a cappella followed by some clapping and dancing. While this was sort of nice, I am not absolutely sure what it has to do with the Wild West? Later on, an all-girl band appeared just next to the church and played some live music covers of various hits. Again, I only counted about three or four songs that I would consider country and/or western but the crowd didn’t seem to mind and were all dancing along regardless. Must have been all that Badlands Brew.
All in all Django Bango was… okay. I don’t like to belittle people’s efforts to try and do something new or even jump on the bandwagon of trends if it is for the sake of something good, but in this instance I felt like they may have bitten off more than they can chew. The sets were functional but not 100% convincing: the attention to detail was lacking and most of the time you felt like you were just sitting in a room made up of sheets of ply wood. Because you were. As well as the slightly shonky sets, at any given time you only had to look down to see the grey concrete floor, or up to see the industrial ceiling tiles and you were automatically pulled out of the fantasy. It made me wonder why they chose a Wild West theme in the first place? Why not pick something that was more industrial and fitting to the buidling and save yourself the hassle?
The immersive feel was also somewhat lost because it felt like there were a lack of actors creating an atmosphere and making you feel like you were actually in an experience. Not that I want to compare this to Secret Cinema too much as I know they have been running events for years and their budgets are huge, but I couldn’t help but feel like Django Bango could take some pointers from these guys: their sets are amazing and all of the actors and action happening around you really draws you into the moment. Here it felt like Django Bango had just spread their budget too thin and had tried to do a lot of things poorly rather than a few things really well.
Django Bango is fine if you are looking for a themed bar with live music and some places to hang out with your friends. In this respect I think they will do very well from the hundreds of students who live just down the street. If you’re actually looking for a more convincing immersive experience then I suggest you keep riding along, cowboy.
Tickets to Django Bango cost £10 in advance or £12.50 on the door. It is open every Friday and Saturday from 19th February to 2nd April 2016, 7pm – 1am.
Address: 22 – 36 Raven Row, Whitechapel, London, E1 2EG.