One of the must-dos of London tourism is visiting the London Dungeon, a ninety-minute attraction, which opened in 1974 as a horror museum. Now, it is a much more interactive experience, complete with actors, rides, mazes, lighting effects, a beautiful soundscape, scents, and incredibly detailed sets, costumes and props. It is still an educational experience, but with added scares, humor, and theatrics.
There are equivalent Dungeons elsewhere in Europe, each focusing on the history of its own city, albeit not necessarily in chronological order nor completely accurately. A Dungeon will open later this year in San Francisco.
There is no overarching story connecting the experience; just a collection of short dramatic pieces. Some are linked, some are not, and some contradict each other. It is often confusing where one story ends and the next one starts.
I had been to the Merlin-owned London Dungeon several times over the years, and even worked there for a spell in 2002. However neither myself, nor my friend Dougie (who worked there in 2001), had visited since it had moved from its original Tooley Street site to its new home in County Hall just over a year ago, so we recently went to check it out and to make sure it had lost none of its old charm.
To me, the exterior is not as appealing as it was at the old location. Possibly, my opinion may have been tainted by the fact that I arrived ten minutes early, and the site wasn’t yet fully set up for the day.
However, the marble-looking faux-ancient statues that sit on either side of the main entrance are already looking the worse for wear, and don’t fit as flush against the wall as they did in Tooley Street. Thus they don’t look or feel as authentic, especially given how much they clash against the grandeur of the County Hall aesthetic. Having said that, the theming is thus ruined less by open windows and the like.
County Hall, as a whole, is home to many attractions (such as a laser maze), as well as shops and eateries. More significantly, it is also home to the SEA LIFE London Aquarium, and is walking distance from the London Eye. Both of these attractions are also operated by Merlin (as will be the recently announced Shrek-themed attraction, opening on the site in 2015), and so the exterior pathway is full of banners, adverts, and staff handing out fliers, all taking up a lot of space and giving it a very commercial vibe.
Finding our way into the building was overly-complicated, and it wasn’t clear where one was supposed to go, or when. We used the priority queue, which took us through a photo op (me in a pillory, Dougie with an axe) and straight to the Jailer’s Room (box office). This is where the priority entry line joined with the regular line. At the box office, people were persuaded to buy a program, with which one gained discounts from their further Merlin-based purchases. We declined.
I should point out that, although the regular line can get quite lengthy, I am slightly disappointed that I did not get a chance to experience its Corridor of Misdemeanours, featuring live cockroaches and humor provided by the Black Jester.
After the Jailer’s Room, we were put into small groups, with whom we would be spending the rest of the tour. We then passed the location’s only set of restrooms. Seeing as some people take longer than others to use the facilities, and some may not need to go at all, I would have thought it may have been more sensible to group people after the restrooms. Having said that, the male restrooms were perhaps the best-themed lavatories I have ever used (ruined slightly by in-cubicle posters informing you of other Merlin offerings).
The restrooms featured several visual gags, such as flies in the urinal and miniature guillotines for removing unwanted genitals, and an audio loop which went from thematic (flies buzzing) to scary (sudden sound effects of people flushing themselves away), to comical (commenting on the size of one’s member). I can only guess that the female restrooms were equally funny, albeit with different visuals and a separate audio.
Our next stop was a holding area. There was an actress hanging around making gross-out comments, a few boxes one could put their hands in to feel various artifacts, and some live (but caged) rats.
After being given a few house rules, such as no photography and not touching the actors, we were moved into a lift, which supposedly took us down to banks of the River Thames. To my understanding, the elevator was supposed to “go wrong” and “break down”, and there would be some interaction with the guests pulling at ropes, etc. However, none of this seemed to happen, and this scene, “Descent”, was over almost as soon as it had begun.
One then experiences “Henry’s Wrath”, a boat ride with some great scare moments. I didn’t necessarily understand the plot, although I did enjoy Brian Blessed’s audio-visual cameo as Henry VIII. One gets very wet on this ride—though it is not the only place guests encounter unexpected water in the Dungeon—and it is a great opener and an interesting way to transport people to the next scene: an encounter with a Gong Farmer, aka a poo collector.
Although I am trying to avoid explaining exactly what happens in any scene—spoilers are easy to find elsewhere on the internet—I should say that the Gong Farmer section has some nice, unexpected effects, but left me wanting more from it.
After a walk through a low-ceilinged, foggy corridor, we reached a scene about Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament; and then we were ushered into a surprisingly spacious room to learn about the torture implements of yesteryear.
This is the first major time in the experience that specific guests were given individual roles to play. It is interesting and pleasing however, that all staff (rather than just the actors) do try to encourage interaction. All staff have themed costumes and outgoing personalities. They are helpful and polite, whilst staying in character at all times. But, more importantly, I saw several instances of employees respectfully backing off when the guest did not want to be volunteered.
After the torturer scene, we had to guide ourselves through a dark mini-maze, complete with air cannons and similar shocks. I got lost and ended up backstage, which was a lot brighter and cleaner than the equivalent areas at Tooley Street. One of the bonuses of the additional space at County Hall is that, as well as having more room to expand on scenes and do the sets true justice, the actors have more room for themselves. They are less likely to get Dungeon Fever, and can get between scenes without crossing through other sets. This extended backstage also means staff can help a terrified guest leave without the risk of them getting more scared on their way out, and without distracting other groups.
The building’s additional space (approximately 25% more than its predecessor) also means that guests can now be routed around any non-working scene, as opposed to having to walk through it. However, the biggest bonus is that the guests have more room at points when personal space would be appreciated, such as at the box office or on staircases.
Other spaces are of course manipulated to look like they take up less room than they do. I noticed several uses of forced perspective; and this mini-maze seamlessly added claustrophobia to the guests’ increasing list of fears. The adaptability of the space is also useful for the addition of new scenes (several are planned) and for making seasonal amendments.
The mini-maze took us past an animatronic masked plague doctor and into a diseased street, after which we received a short talk and a section called “Coughin’ Coffin”. Personally, I found “Coughin’ Coffin” to be the most lacking experience within the Dungeon. It used an effect we had seen twice before on the tour—projections on static figures—but the scene needed trimming, maintenance and a twist or two, to hold the crowd’s waning interest.
The next scene seated the audience inside the workroom of the recently deceased plague doctor. The thrust of the narrative here was that his assistant was removing the late doctor’s organs and playing around with them. There were a few sudden blackouts which didn’t seem to progress the story in any way, but there were some good gags, some nice moments of audience interaction, and a clever underseat effect.
We then doubled back on ourselves, turned a corner, walked through a vortex tunnel, past some rats (fake ones this time) and into a pie shop. This stretch of the tour was surprisingly disorientating for me, although this is perhaps because it was the only time Dougie and I found ourselves at the front of the group. This is also the only time that something genuinely made us jump, although often I mistakenly thought that someone was about to try.
Inside the pie shop, we were cleverly introduced by a bipolar version of Mrs. Lovett to the story of Sweeney Todd. Although Todd never existed, and is the only fictional character to be covered in the Dungeon, the story of this murderous barber whose victims are turned into pies is one well known by Londoners, and here is well executed.
After the pie shop scene, guests entered Todd’s barber shop and sat in individual, specially-modded barber’s chairs (there were a lot more chances to sit down throughout the experience than there were in Tooley Street!) where a talented young performer gave an exceptional interpretation of Sweeney’s simplistic assistant, already lusting over our material possessions. Todd himself was realized using shadows, and pre-recorded stereo audio, and there were plenty of in-chair effects to keep everyone jumping.
The following three scenes were based around Jack the Ripper. The first was a street scene in which victim Mary Jane Kelly sets the story up with some historical context; the second saw guests trying to navigate around Whitehall (a mirror maze with a twist); and the third brought us into a replica of the Ten Bells pub.
In the Ten Bells, the landlady gives more historical information, such as who the main suspects were to the Ripper’s real identity. However, things don’t go to plan, and items start jumping off the walls. It was hard to follow what was supposed to be happening here or why, but it did a good job of building up the suspense for the Ripper’s inevitable appearances, knife in hand.
Personally, I felt that the Ripper’s appearances could have been more fleeting. He is timed to a lighting effect, so this is not the actor’s fault (although I did feel the performer was too young for the role), but as with most scare roles, that the more a guest sees of a character, the more acclimatized they get, and the more predictable the character becomes.
After that, there was a light-hearted courtroom scene featuring a judge and a clerk puttingmembers of our group on trial. In the end, the whole lot gets sentenced to a hanging, and goes through a door marked “Very Guilty”.
Guests then experience a humorous skit with a hangman, who teaches you the best way to behave whilst being hung. There is then a small holding area full of safety warnings (and a chicken exit) before the hanging itself, a modified drop tower called “Drop Dead”, which features some nice surprises as well as taking rider’s photos
When the ride was finished, I did feel that we were rushed out a bit quickly. The effects had barely ended, when we were told to pull up our lap bar and collect our personal belongings. A few extra seconds would have been nice, just to let everything sink in, and to let the lights finish fading up.
The gift shop itself is decent, and sells some pretty cool merchandise including T-shirts, glasses, masks, copies of your hands in wax, and a helluva lot of sweets. There doesn’t seem to be any real theming to the gift shop, though it does have some gravestones with humorous epitaphs written on them, and a couple of busts over the final exit.
The shop plays audio from the attraction itself, so you can hear again, for example, Brian Blessed’s loud musings. However, I also noticed the audio featured the dialogue from Mrs. Lovett, which retrospectively ruined the sense of her spontaneity for me.
I was disappointed to note that some sections of the script (such as the torture chamber and the courtroom) have seemingly not been changed in over ten years, and I was also a bit bored by constantly being told we were going to die. I would suggest, with regard to the latter, that it would be best to either only say it for one section to really play up that fear as a one-time thing, or to turn it into more of a running joke.
The attraction as a whole is intentionally less gory than before—even using a different shade of red for its logo—and is aiming to be more family-friendly. Many improvements in operation really have made a difference, such as actors being able to trigger their own effects and a greater clarity as to who is in which group, although it is a shame the actors are not as free to adlib. The production values themselves are much higher quality. The new Guy Fawkes scene is an interesting addition, although it is a shame Tooley Street’s Great Fire area was not kept.
On the whole though, whatever the downsides, I reiterate my original comment: visiting the London Dungeon is one of the must-dos of London tourism.
– Hugh Allison/European Contributor
All images used in this article are courtesy of Hugh Allison and/or The London Dungeon for use on Theme Park Adventure. All rights reserved.