Please be warned, this is a spoiler-filled review of The Owls Are Not What They Seem. If you are attending the event and want to keep everything a surprise please read our spoiler-free guide instead.
Although I count myself as a huge fan of David Lynch’s melodramatic and often terrifying 90s serial drama Twin Peaks, I am fully aware of its faults.
Occasionally the dead-ends were too maddening, its absurdity fell on the wrong side of wacky and some of the regular characters began to grate in an interminable way.
In its second season Twin Peaks managed to test the patience of even the most obsequious Lynch fan thanks to some leadened plotting and a distinct lack of purpose. However despite this, Twin Peaks heralded a new kind of storytelling in mainstream television. One in which audiences were credited for their intelligence with fascinatingly flawed characters, cinematically high production and plot-points that wouldn’t pay-off till multiple seasons later. The reward for this patience was a deep sense of satisfaction.
Tonight, in a secret location somewhere in Central London, we experienced the immersive dining version of the above.
At times The Owls Are Not What They Seem, developed by Lemonade and Laughing Gas and Blanch & Shock, is a joyous experience full of weird surprises, humour and charm, but at other times its ambition just isn’t met with enough quality control.
Our night began huddled with a handful of costumed Twin Peaks fans outside the old Guardian building in Clerkenwell. Soon enough we were led through a frantically operated police station, manned by a stunningly accurate imitation of Deputy Sheriff Andy, before being led through to a faithfully recreated diner where we were served a good old fashioned cup of joe by the friendly proprietor Wanda. I call anyone friendly who serves me a coffee with a smile and decent slug of whisky.
The tables in the diner sit no more or less than six people at a time, so as we were a couple we had to put aside our normal misanthropy and make friends with a group of strangers. Luckily anyone who decides to attend a Twin Peaks themed evening dressed as their favourite character is hardly going to be an asshole, so we of course found ourselves in pleasant company.
As the venue only sat around 40 people at a time, there was no hiding from interacting with the characters so you’d better prepare yourself for some improv, as a lot of these interactions (or interrogations and intimidations) can become quite intense. However they also form the most memorable parts of the evening.
The weirdness offered by the production certainly falls on the friendlier side of Lynch. There are moments where reality stops, the lights fade and the music changes while characters discuss suitably enigmatic matters, before slipping back into relative normality. However there are other moments, such as when a man walks in wearing an unrealistic horse’s mask who then proceeds to perform a slightly embarrassed dance, that fall flat and feel like a watered down Lynch pastiche, rather than anything in keeping with Twin Peaksian folklore.
At some point quite early on you’ll also begin to realise that every character and element at the experience has been given a non-copyright infringing name. Agent Dale Cooper is renamed Don, One Eyed Jacks is now Black Jacks, Laura Palmer is simply referred to as ‘The Dead Girl’. This is all fine, but there are moments when Cooper talks into his voice recorder and refers to Luanne instead of Diane which tarnish the quality of the production and make you realise that your watching a knock-off imitation of the real thing.
Dinner itself is also somewhat of a disappointment, especially having spent nearly £70 for the privilege.
The starter was a beetroot, mushroom and black garlic ‘coffee’ served with small dunkable donuts, dusted with pine shavings. The donuts were overcooked and lacked sweetness, the ‘coffee’ was bitter and failed to compliment the donuts and the pine shavings were a deeply unpleasant addition. Because they tasted like pine.
The main course was maple glazed pork belly slices with hashbrowns, greens and a poached egg. This was mediocre Wednesday night home-cooking at best; just a couple of slices of thick bacon and some quickly pan fried sides. It was unsatisfying and I left the venue still hungry.
Dessert-wise, if you’re going to operate a Twin Peaks themed diner then you’d better serve a damn fine cherry pie. The cherry pie tonight was merely fine.
So with dinner a disappointment we were left to find our fun elsewhere, and luckily there was plenty to explore. The actors played their roles with charm and conviction, and they had clearly all done their homework. If you decide to attend, then I implore you to follow the characters wherever they lead you.
The most fun I had was a genuinely exhilarating encounter with Leo. We took a couple of golf clubs and he led me upstairs through a maze of white tarpaulin, where we proceeded to scare the shit out of two unsuspecting patrons who had wandered in with another character. Me and Leo then ended our adventure by doing a few lines of ‘coke’ in
Laura Palmer’s the dead girl’s bedroom. As it was just me and him the whole time, this felt kind of dangerous but incredibly special. If a little terrifying.
Elsewhere things weren’t quite so ‘method’. One gentleman who was tangentially part of the production, wandered the halls and at one point in the evening silently suggested to us that we shouldn’t go through a door that was previously accessible. We assumed he was ‘doing a bit’ but this unrecognisable character immediately broke out of his non-character and explicitly said “you can’t go in there” before gruffly sitting back down to read ‘Ready Player One’.
Despite this run-in, you are free to explore the entire space after the event is finished. Although some rooms are thrown together in a rather rushed, clichéd manner (broken doll watching an old broken TV) many of them are disquietingly spooky. The best of them all though, which was also the hardest to find, was a faithful recreation of the Black Lodge’s red room, stumbled upon just as we were leaving.
Overall, if you haven’t seen Twin Peaks, there’s probably no point in attending The Owls Are Not What They Seem as you will only leave confused and dissatisfied. Unlike Secret Cinema, where even if you hate the movie you can’t help but be impressed by the spectacle, this is a much more humble affair, designed to be enjoyed by only the most devoted Twin Peaks fan with an ‘easy to please’ attitude.
It’s not entirely successful, many of the interactions you are encouraged to participate in don’t really have a pay-off beyond the fact that you’ve interacted with a character. But it is entirely charming and the performances certainly make up for lack of attention in other areas. If only the dinner was of a much higher standard than this would have definitely been worth the ticket price.