Start the fans please! Northern Soul attempts The Crystal Maze
Locating the entrance to The Crystal Maze Experience in Manchester is a bit like taking part in one of its infamous challenges. As we wait for our team to congregate in the rare March sunshine, the early-comers discuss tactics, or lack thereof, and strategy. I’ve been avoiding putting any serious thought into the upcoming tasks, preferring to focus on the excitement of 90s nostalgia instead. I’m not the ideal game-show contestant, lacking both the competitive and coordination genes, as well as being a little apprehensive.
But that’s the thing about The Crystal Maze Experience. Inspired by the classic 1990s TV series, it’s clear from the outset that we’re supposed to enjoy ourselves. From the friendly chat at the front desk to the brightly-coloured bomber jackets (my inner vintage queen wants to stash said jacket in my handbag) and pre-game photo, you know it’s supposed to be a bit of a laugh. Although having to sign a waiver makes me a little anxious.
In 2015, the public-backed Little Lion Entertainment’s dream of bringing back The Crystal Maze as a live experience that everyone could participate and star in soon came to fruition. From the moment the project was announced in London, it’s been a hit with more than 100,000 people taking part in the games and tickets selling out far in advance. Now its Manchester’s turn.
Like the telly programme, groups of eight contestants are guided through four zones – Aztec, Medieval, Industrial and Future – and compete in a variety of tasks in four categories: Physical, Mental, Skill and Mystery. Each are designed to test strength under pressure. The more games they win, the more crystals they get and at the end of their time in the maze, the crystals will be converted into precious time in the Crystal Dome.
Sounds simple, right?
We’re directed to spend a few moments in the briefing booth, discussing leadership and tactics, much to our amusement. We select our Team Captain (Chris) and Vice-Captain (me), and chat about who might fancy doing which task with absolutely no urgency, clarity or plan of action. I’d joked with one of the front of house team about previous attendees who’d carried out warm-up stretches and arrived at their booking with a list of team members and their strengths and weaknesses. In hindsight, it might have proved prudent to have some such this game plan, but that’s not how we roll at Northern Soul Towers.
After being shown to a room with a telly and a couple of benches, we’re treated to a video of wistful clips of Richard O’Brien, dressed like he’s rolled about in a fancy-dress shop, pulling faces and delivering famous one-liners from the original show. We all laugh, albeit nervously, recalling childhood memories of internet dial-up tones (my dad used to interrupt with shouts of “get off the bloody computer”), dubious hair-dos and familiar games.
The premise? The maze has been handed over to new Maze Masters (accompanied by the weirdly titled Maze Wombles). Our fella appears at the door, decked out like an extra from The Lord of the Rings, crystal staff in hand, with a booming voice. He’s all stage-presence; funny and informative, and I can’t help but stifle a giggle when he makes comments about the size of his staff.
At the beginning, we’re all pumped, naïve in our abilities and filled with nervous apprehension. Under no allusion that we’ll be great, we’re at least hopeful that a few crystals will be won. As we’re directed through the ever-magical neon-signed fire escape, at the jogging-pace of true Crystal Maze contestants (and, much to my delight, to the soundtrack) we enter through a dark corridor (the aroma of new paint still permeating the air) and into our first ‘realm’ – the Medieval zone.
As our Maze Master begins his spiel, I’m filled with the same dread I imagine must be the case in haunted houses, worried that something might pop out at me from behind a corner.
First up is a skill test, a riddle scribed on the wall which leaves us all befuddled. “I don’t understand,” says Drew, as we stare on through the slats in the door and, I must admit, I haven’t got a clue how to solve the problem. We don’t do well and leave the floor covered in props by the time we’re through. This is followed by a mental task, having to arrange picture boards to form pie ingredients, which might have gone well if only we’d realised the integral twist. I’m not entirely sure apple and steak is a palatable pastry. This was swiftly followed by a complicated – and gruelling – physical task, guaranteed to tire even the fittest of contestants.
I won’t say too much about the individual tasks, as the beauty of The Crystal Maze Experience is in the not knowing. Hindsight and strategizing, although it’ll help you maintain some semblance of dignity, takes the fun out of the game.
Dismayed but not defeated, it was onto the Industrial zone. We opt for a couple of skills tests, none of which fare well for this band of webzine contributors. There’s a few ‘locked in’ moments, where we’re placed on the ‘naughty step’ and, to my horror, I am unable to work out a simple conundrum when it’s my turn to be reprimanded.
My favourite zone, not that it made much difference to our ability, is Aztec. A long-standing love of mine from my childhood days, I’m not disappointed by the level of detail and thought that’s gone into the conception and construction of the games. There are some truly fun – and physical – surprises along the way.
The Future zone thrusts ball pits and tennis balls upon us. Trust me, you’d be hard pressed not to laugh until you’ve seen someone struggling to exit a tiny room stuffed full of balls; an uncoordinated person (me) operate a not particularly complicated machine that fires tennis balls at space invaders (or, in my case, my head), or a high-ponytail set of a room of lasers.
We meander through the last of the tasks, attempting to regain some of our self-respect (and crystals) only to reveal that our poor attempts have resulted in only one crystal (due to forfeits) and a grand total of five seconds – yes, you read that correctly – in the dome
“Five seconds,” laugh the dome’s operators. “God!” “The fewest amount of crystals achieved so far is four,” admits our Maze Master and I’m oddly proud. Somehow it seems wonderful, and extremely amusing, that we’ve got such a woefully low score. “Do we get a prize for being consistent?” I ask our Maze Master. “If there was a prize for being consistently terrible, you’d most certainly win,” he assured us. Good to know.
“Can we change our name to Northern Sole because of the single crystal?” says Liz. “She’s witty,” the Maze Master exclaims. “Why didn’t you put her in charge?”
As a token of goodwill, and probably to make the whole thing worthwhile, our time in the dome is topped up to 15 seconds. Despite the paltry score, it’s worth it simply to realise our childhood dreams of yelling ‘start the fans please’ and catching those golden tickets. Although, quick pointer, they’re harder to grab than they look.
Like any new venture, The Crystal Maze has its snags. At between £45 and £55 per person, it’s a pricey affair, but it’s the perfect antidote to stilted corporate team-building events or birthday parties. There are also a few small teething problems, such as rooms not being reset (one of our mystery tasks was slightly anti-climactic when we realised the props hadn’t been rearranged) but it didn’t deflect from our experience.
We exit the Old Granada Studio building in fits of giggles, walking up the cobbled streets towards Castlefield, and past the slightly creepy mural of Richard O’Brien. Despite being bottom of the leader board, we’re all strangely pleased with our efforts. Like un-athletic kids during sports day, we all agree that it’s the taking part that counts.
So, if you think that The Crystal Maze is an experience for only the bold and the brave, think again. I haven’t laughed as much at my own lack of co-ordination since I slipped on a patch of ice outside the big Tesco in Levenshulme during rush hour. I thoroughly recommend that you all head to the Crystal dome and give it a whirl.
The Crystal Maze will open its doors at Manchester’s Old Granada Studios on April 1, 2017. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
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