Six years ago the film The Wolf of Wall Street was a box-office hit for Martin Scorsese. But it started with a book by Jordan Belfort describing his rise as a young New York stockbroker – and how everything then came tumbling down. Now the book’s been adapted as a live immersive experience in London.
Name recognition for The Wolf of Wall Street probably comes mainly from the 2013 film with Leonardo DiCaprio. But the man who now has to make the story work with live actors points out the show he’s written and directed has nothing to do with the movie.
Alexander Wright says he believed the story would make great immersive drama.
“This isn’t a show where you sit in a seat for two hours. When you walk in you’re treated as a new employee on Day One at the stockbrokers Stratton Oakmont. There’s going to be immediate interaction with actors cast as other employees.
“And you soon realise you’ve turned up on a big day: the firm’s handling the massive IPO (Initial Public Offering) for [fashion designer] Steve Madden shoes. That’s where the story starts.”
In real life the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, run by Belfort, took Madden public in 1993. Belfort was later indicted for securities fraud and given a four-year sentence. He’s
Wright’s cast of 20 has recreated a multi-layered slice of New York life in a terrace of houses behind Liverpool Street Station. The space is due to become a boutique hotel next year. The location is close to major City of London employers such as Deutsche Bank and UBS; Wright knew he wanted a location in the financial district rather than an established theatre.
After an initial briefing, audience members face the kind of options common to many immersive shows. At certain points they choose which storyline to follow as Stratton Oakmont first booms and then crumbles. You can remain a devoted Strattonite or take an interest in how FBI agents build their case against the firm.
And if you prefer, you can focus on the tense home life of Belfort (played by Oliver Tilney), his wife Nadine (played by Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty) and young daughter Chandler.
Harper-Rafferty is appearing in her first immersive show.
“What I really like is the access you get to the audience. Physically they’re very close so you see what is affecting them. But they can also morph what’s happening in the action – it’s two-way.
“There are moments when, if I feel it’s going to work, I ask the audience for advice about the strains in the family. The reply is often that I should leave Jordan – though a couple of days ago someone asked why doesn’t he just take his money and retire?
“There’s a scene at home celebrating Chandler’s seventh birthday. It’s like the audience becomes part of our group and you can feel them trying to protect the Chandler character. An audience member may stand in the wrong place or maybe make an unexpected comment out loud. But if that comes from an emotional place it can actually help.”
Tilney also took the central role in Wright’s immersive version of The Great Gatsby.
“This is still a relatively new form and we’re learning all the time how it works. Sometimes immersive theatre can be free form, where the audience goes wherever it wants. Or there’s a promenade experience where you might go fairly strictly from A to B to C.
“I would say The Wolf of Wall Street sits somewhere in between: audience members have a choice of where to go but we talk about ‘tracks’ which pretty much guide the audience through the narrative.
“More inquisitive people can peel off and follow a different strand of the story – and sometimes it’s useful for us if we invite them to do so. That can work if an audience member is in some way interesting or is asking particular questions. They may end up learning something which others don’t or having a particular experience. We call those Easter eggs.”
The play retains the original 1990s setting. Wright says today’s City workers, with so many nearby, may find parallels with recent events in the world of finance.
“It’ll be really interesting to sit with them in the bar after the show and talk about what resonates today and what’s more from 90s business culture. But if it starts as a story about stocks and banks and money and excess it becomes a story about people. The last thing we want to be is preachy.”
Audience members need to accept a certain amount of shepherding from one space to the next. Attentive production staff wrangle them with a firm touch. There are quite a lot of stairs and swear words.
Wright says structuring Gatsby gave him valuable experience to help make the new show work.
“The immersive industry attracts a varied audience which has grown but also the character has developed. Wolf is getting people in who wouldn’t dream normally of going to the theatre – in some cases theatre would be their nightmare evening out. So that’s a whole new audience.
“But also we’ve definitely seen people come over from traditional theatre to give immersive a try. They might be people who would go to the National Theatre or to the West End. We’re now seeing families and tourists turn up and I don’t think immersive is seen as purely a fringe thing any more.
“There are parts of the show which are very funny. But there are elements of tragedy too – Jordan flies high but he crashes to earth. It’s like a great classic King Lear: it all comes down to ambition and relationships and people making mistakes and having to decide what matters to them and the damage they do along the way to everyone around them – even to people they love.
“We have an incredibly complex but rigid show plan about what needs to happen when. We have worked out exactly how the audience will journey through the action. But hopefully the audience isn’t aware of that at all. What matters are the characters and how they interact – it’s ultimately what keeps people watching.”
The Wolf of Wall Street is playing at Stratton Oakmont Inc. on Sun Street in London. ( It is cooperating fully with Federal agencies.)