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Interview: Sam Emmerson of Moonstone Murder Mysteries

With A Most Mechanical Murder returning for one night only this June at Phantom Peak, we interrogate Moonstone Murder Mysteries Creative Director Sam Emmerson on how to craft the perfect immersive murder mystery event.

A Most Mechanical Murder poster

Immersive Rumours: Hi Sam. Thanks for sitting down with us today. Do you mind letting us know how long Moonstone Murder Mysteries has been running and how many shows you've launched since it first started?


Sam Emmerson: It was Halloween 2017 when we first launched in London and the Southeast, but there's a Moonstone Theatre company in the South West of England that's been going for 15 years now. I was with them for a couple of years before starting it up here. Moonstone Theatre Company very much comes from a dining experience background, and it's in the last few years that we've moved more into the immersive experience game. I actually lost track of it at one point, but we've launched around 30 shows to date.


IR: How do you go about devising and scripting that many shows?


Sam: Generally, either a strong coffee or a large glass of wine tends to help. One of the things that's quite interesting about how we work - although we do the big immersive experiences like we've got coming up with A Most Mechanical Murder, and when we previously did Cyanide In The Speakeasy last year, we mainly do things for private parties and a lot of it is bespoke stuff. For about 1/3 of our shows, the clients will say 'Look, we want to do a show for our venue' or 'It's our 60th birthday' or 'We're getting married. We'd love to do a murder mystery in this sort of world, or this sort of theme' so you get a bit of a jumping-off point there.


Alternatively, for the two new dining experiences that we've got for this year, we were just spitballing ideas and going, "What areas have we not touched yet that we think would be popular?" That's why we've got a show set around horse racing and the other one set like in a Renaissance Fair LARPing festival.


So do you typically start at a concept or setting and work backwards?


Sam: That's the way of creating shows that I find works best because ultimately - for a murder mystery in particular - although there are so many different avenues you can go down, in terms of creating motives there are only really 10 different categories that it can fall into. The order I always go in is to figure out the world that you're in, and then who would then fit into that world. Once you've got that established, then you find the link.


That's why the more unique the setting, the more fun you can have. The hardest ones to write, to be honest, are the really generic ones. If it's set in an office, we've got nothing to build off. We did a live lockdown series on Zoom for 12 weeks where we played a new show every week and some of them were 'What are the strangest settings we can think of?'. One was set on the sound stage of a children's TV studio where a clown had been suffocated with a custard pie. Because of the bizarreity of it, you can be so playful with the options there.


Moonstone Murder Mysteries Zoom Shows.

Photos: Moonstone Murder Mysteries


At the end of June you're running A Most Mechanical Murder at Phantom Peak in Canada Water. Can you give us a brief overview of the storyline for the show? 


Sam: The premise of A Most Mechanical Murder is that the town of Phantom Peak has gathered for the funeral of a murdered robot. However, as the last rights and the user warranty are being read, they realise someone's not there and the Health and Safety Officer of the town has also been found murdered. Fortunately, Inspector Rutherford just happened to be in town at the time, and goes 'Whilst I'm here, I've called on my detectives across the land to come into Phantom Peak to solve the case'. So the audience then set about solving both a human murder and a robot murder at the same time.


With A Most Mechanical Murder, the show is set within the universe of Phantom Peak. What kind of things did you have to consider when taking over another shows space for one of your shows?


Sam: Firstly, the venue is amazing. Because Phantom Peak is such a unique and big world, it gives us so many different ideas about where we could go. The challenge is making sure that anyone who'd been to Phantom Peak before believed that this had some link to that world without getting too bogged down in the huge amount of lore and information that it already has within it, while also having it so people who'd never been to Phantom Peak before weren't isolated.


When we ran it previously, about 1/3 of the guests came because of Phantom Peak, 1/3 came because of us, and 1/3 had just booked because they liked the look of the show but hadn't been to one of our events or Phantom Peak before. It's a little bit of a balancing act with those sorts of shows.

Our story is outside of the Phantom Peak canon, and the way we explained that was the dumbest way we could think of. When anyone who had been to Phantom Peak before asked us where the town's usual townsfolk were, we told them they'd gone off to compete as part of the Rhythmic Gymnastics team for the Jonalympics.

Phantom Peak's indoor venue

Photo: Alistair Veryard


When you take over a space, how do you make sure it's clear what is part of your world, and what's just part of the venues you've taken over?


Sam: Well, the last time we did the show was a little bit like herding cats at one point because Phantom Peak's got things like Videomatic codes written everywhere - we made it explicitly clear that if we tell you it's a clue, it's a clue. If you find it randomly spray-painted in a corner of a dark room, it's not a clue. People would still do it, but I love it despite the confusion it caused because it meant people were really into the game that they were playing.


When we did Cyanide In The Speakeasy at the COLAB Tavern in 2023, we had the space for three nights a week. COLAB Tavern had a lot of nooks and crannies from previous shows at the venue, and we had a whole thing where you snuck through the back door to get into the speakeasy. On the first night we did the show, someone found a cabinet filled with fake guns that we didn't know existed, and we also had people coming up to me with random little bottles of poison and I was going "Where did you find this?!" and they'd say "Oh, it was behind that locked door."


Cyanide In The Speakeasy at COLAB Tavern.

Photos: Moonstone Murder Mysteries


This is the second time that you're mounting A Most Mechanical Murder. What were the big takeaways from when it ran previously?


Sam: Fortunately, as a whole, it worked very well! There's a couple more interactive elements that we're currently looking to develop so there's always something to do. We only used the indoor space last time, this time we're opening it up to use indoor and outdoor so there's a nicer audience flow. When it's a murder mystery, everyone is 'Okay, go, go, go.' So we're trying to make it clearer to take it at your own pace. You don't have to be running around constantly the whole time because you knacker yourself out by the start of the second half!

Sam Emmerson at a previous Moonstone Murder event

Sam Emmerson as Inspector Rutherford.

Photo: Moonstone Murder Mysteries


Your cast is made up of comedic improvisers. How much freedom do they have to go off-script when interacting with guests? I imagine there's a balancing act of improvising and still having to hit specific story beats.


Sam: We give our team probably a much longer leash than most companies do. With A Most Mechanical Murder, the actual script is three times the size of a standard Moonstone Murders script. There are scenes that are scripted and will play out - basically the top, the middle and the end of the show where everyone's together. When they're on their own, they have certain points to hit, but they never know what's going to be asked. If an audience member wants to go down a completely random rabbit hole, our actors will go with them. If they want to go and just drill them on facts of the case, they'll also go with it, because it's their night, and it's how they want to play.


It's a game within a show, but it's a show at the end of the day. If people get it wrong, that's entirely on them at the end of the night, but if that's the way you people to enjoy our show, we're more than happy to go with them on it. My ethos with our shows is 'Did you get it? Great. Did you get it wrong? Oh well. Did you have fun?'.


Moonstone Murder Mysteries run events all over the country. Have you noticed a different between how regional audiences approach the shows compared to London audiences, who might attend immersive experiences more regularly?


Sam: Our audience is on the whole quite a broad church and you never quite know what you're going to get. I find London audiences - and I mean this in a good way - they make you work a bit harder sometimes. Whereas sometimes when you go to a place that doesn't have as much available, it's got a different atmosphere to it. I think the great thing with London audiences, especially when you're surrounded with immersive theater fans, is that they will stress test what you've got in every which way. You get a different satisfaction from knowing that things truly do work under that stress test.


Murder mysteries seem to have an enduring popularity through all kinds of media. What about them do you think has allowed them to remain so popular and for Moonstone Murder Mysteries to do so well?


Sam: One is the curiosity for the morbid in all of us, I think. Because something like murder is so abhorrent, none of us could ever imagine doing it. It becomes almost fantasy, in a sense. That's why our shows are lighthearted - you'd never set a murder mystery experience in a modern-day setting where someone's been in a gang fight or someone's been stabbed. But if you set it on a train in the 1930s and everyone's wearing outfits and doing silly accents and having it off at the back of the train, then that's all kosher - that's good to go.


On a lighter level, I think especially the British, we're just very nosy people. So when someone goes 'This has happened, I'm not going to tell you the answer to it.' It's that curiosity of 'I've got to know now', and an actual murder mystery most of the time is just fun. When someone admits to a murder in real life, everyone is appalled. It's a very sombre moment. When someone admits to a murder at the end of a murder mystery event, generally someone will shout 'Hang him!'. You get what I mean? There's a very big difference between reality and fiction.

 

A Most Mechanical Murder runs at Phantom Peak in Canada Water on Thursday 27th June 2024. Tickets start at £36.50 and can be purchased here. Thanks to Sam Emmerson for taking the time to speak with us.

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