Hide the marmalade! Paddington bear is back – and this time he’s gone immersive

An almighty crash sounds from above. “Everything’s fine, Mrs Brown!” a voice calls out. I peek my head round the door of 32 Windsor Gardens. On the winding stairs sits a pair of little red wellies, as if someone rather small and accident-prone has just slipped them off and scampered upstairs.

This is The Paddington Bear Experience, which has just moved into London’s County Hall, next to the Sea Life aquarium on the banks of the Thames. A cross between a film set, a theatre show and a party, the 70-minute experience presents a rose-tinted world spun from Michael Bond’s beloved stories about the bear from darkest Peru, slightly heightened and slightly magical.

“It’s all about the warm Paddington welcome,” says director Tom Maller, who is collaborating with designer Rebecca Brower. The pair previously made Peaky Blinders: The Rise, recreating the world of the TV crime drama. Maller, who spent years working with immersive experts Secret Cinema, took on this project because he wanted to make a show his three-year-old son would enjoy. When he goes home from rehearsals, he takes back messages from his friend Paddington.

Bear necessities … the 2014 Paddington film. Photograph: Studiocanal/Allstar

With the site build still in progress, hard hats are required when I visit some of the team at Mr Gruber’s antique shop, the entryway to Paddington’s world. A toy train runs around the walls and a tumble of old suitcases is piled in one corner. Inside, we’re whisked to Paddington station, where our sweet bear is waiting to be found – although the appearance of Paddington himself is something they are eager to keep secret.

Bond’s bear goes back more than 65 years, but the team have drawn heavily upon the recent movies. Half of the props and dressing are from Studio Canal’s hit films. “We want people to feel they’re at the heart of the story,” Maller says. Having secured the lease for 15 years, everything is being built to last. They’ve even created their own marmalade, for sale at the end.

This may be an enormous commercial venture, but the details show how much heart has gone into it. We stop at the blossom tree on the wall at the base of the Browns’ stairs. “You use your fingers,” designer Brower beams, pressing her thumb into a painted petal. She asked the film’s original artist how it was done and copied the same effect. “All the little blossoms are fingerprints.”

When audiences travel through an immersive experience, purpose is key. “Mrs Brown said to Paddington, ‘Why don’t you invite your friends for Marmalade Day?’” producer Nathan Brine explains, of the imaginary festival that gives us a reason for being here. “But of course everybody Paddington ever meets are his friends,” he smiles, “so he’s invited everybody.”

The roles are shared across 49 performers who play the various characters. The experience is guided by actors, but there’s space to rummage and roam. Maller says the audience fit into different types, including The Fresh Face (“Nathan had a spare ticket, I’ve never seen Paddington or been to an immersive experience, what’s going on?”); The Narrative Player (“They want something completely new they can’t get from the books or movies”); and The Explorer (“When you say turn left, they’ll turn right.”)

Spot the difference … a set from the immersive experience, modelled on the film. Photograph: Piers Foley /The Paddington Bear Experience

“We don’t want everything screwed shut,” says Brower, sweeping sawdust off a table as we move into the living room, where detritus indicates Paddington has found himself in another pickle. “We love making everything tactile and free to explore.” Much of the space is designed to give the impression of Paddington having just been there – meeting a hero requires patience. “It’s all about anticipation,” Maller cautions.

When I visit again, a few weeks later, it’s a tech rehearsal and the three floors are bustling with busy hands, saws and cardboard now replaced by computers and wires. With groups of 30 starting the experience every seven and a half minutes, there is an extremely strict schedule. As we pass through to the nearly finished kitchen, you can almost smell the cake Mrs Bird will be baking. Some of the tech team are sprawled on the floor underneath the sink, giggling as they test how quickly they can complete one of the many games created by the designers.

Just as the books were originally written for children but loved by all, there is no age limit here. “I want people to have a good time whether you’re five or 105,” Maller says. “We want to treat children how they want to be treated and not talk down to them. But if we have a group of 30 adults, the script allows the actor to change their tone.” As he speaks, London vanishes and we emerge into a Peruvian jungle of mostly real trees.

Soon, visitors will arrive for audience testing, invited to push the experience to breaking point before the public pours in. “Our audiences don’t just go home and say they saw something,” says Maller proudly. “They leave and go, ‘I made marmalade in Peru!’” We bat the branches away and head towards the end of the experience, where the space curves round to reveal a familiar round window in a familiar little attic room. It’s a space fit for a familiar, friendly little bear.

The Guardian

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