A decade after Doctor Who landed in Salford with The Crash of the Elysium, local Sci-Fi lovers and theatre fanatics alike say they’d welcome the return of immersive theatre shows.

Back in 2011, Doctor Who’s TARDIS materialised on Salford Quays for a live theatre event that put audiences in the shoes of the iconic Timelord, and left it to them to save the world.

Appearing as part of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) and the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, this truly abstract production was a joint collaboration between MediaCityUK, the BBC, and the Punchdrunk theatrical group.

Penned by Doctor Who writer Tom MacRae (44), who famously brought the dreaded Cybermen into the modern age to take on the Tenth Doctor in the second series of the revived show, his script utilised Crash‘s production location and several key references were made to Salford during the story itself. 

Namely, whilst aiding the 11th incarnation of the iconic Timelord (played by Matt Smith) , audiences came across artefacts from the eponymous Elysium, a Victorian ship that mysteriously shipwrecked after departing from Salford Quays in the 19th century, and found clues from editions of The Manchester Guardian from decades past.

Before entering the experience, audiences were fooled into believing that they were visiting an exhibit on the crashed Victorian ship (credit: Alex Newsome)

MacRae explained that in this wonderfully unique production, every show was different and no one fully knew where the story would go next, he said:

“Once you leave The Crash of the Elysium knowing that you’re the only person…  that adventure as ever happened to, and ever will happen to again, I think that’s amazing you are part of something unique.”

It was the job of the Punchdrunk Theatre Company to put together this unconventional show.

Founded by Felix Barret, the company has been hailed as pioneers of live theatre, providing full-roam theatrical experiences for audiences since 2000.

“Although it’s theatrical, it’s not theatre,” MacRae said. “You don’t go in and you sit in an audience and watch actors. There’s no theatre, there’s no stage, there’s just this wonderful labyrinth of adventure.”

Despite its initial run only being accessible for children and schools, ‘The Crash of the Elysium’ was a runaway success during that year’s MIF, it quickly led to a limited number of shows for adult Who fans becoming available.

Jenny Shirt, a musical and theatre fan who has been following the Doctor since the Jon Pertwee era, was one lucky Whovian who got to step into the time vortex for the day, an experience she fondly recalls, she said:

“It really was something I won’t forget. You became part of the story. I wish they’d bring it back one day.”

Now home to Coronation Street, the huge set of Crash of the Elysium was built on MediaCity's backlot for the initial Salford run (credit: David Dixon)
Now home to Coronation Street, the huge set of Crash of the Elysium was built on MediaCity’s backlot for the initial Salford run (credit: David Dixon)

She explained that the amount of detail the company put into the production was astounding. With the audience members being rushed into army laboratories and dressed up in chemical decontamination suits before being led through the wreckage of an alien spaceship that had landed on MediaCity’s backlot – it all felt surprisingly real.

“I think it was great as it was as if you were in the adventure and on the set itself. It was an early version of the Doctor Who Experience immersive adventure, but on a much bigger scale.”

Shirt said she would love to see similar shows return to Salford’s theatres, due to how accessible they are for their audiences and everyone could get involved and have such a personal story. 

“I think it would be so popular, I think it would be sold out before you know it! I will keep everything crossed that might happen again one day.”

However the experience wasn’t for everyone as Nathan Graham-Lowery, 23, from Eccles found out whilst on a school trip to the experience.

A big Doctor Who fan from a young age, he and his class were lulled into false sense of security upon arriving at the faux-exhibit on the sunken ship, thinking it was a run-of-the-mill history trip, he said:

“It was all pretty mundane (in the initial exhibit), and if we hadn’t known about it being a Doctor Who thing beforehand, it’d feel pretty normal.”

During their mission to help The Doctor, groups of schoolchildren were led through alien spaceships by the army (credit: Punchdrunk Enrichment)

“You could kinda smell the smoke effects and as a kid I felt fully immersed, part of me knew it was just a show but I was so taken aback by the work put into it.”

However the realism of the unfolding story proved too much for a young Nathan as an encounter with one of Doctor Who’s scariest enemies, the Weeping Angels, seemed a bit too realistic.

“I kinda got overwhelmed here and panicked, but fortunately one of the soldiers escorted me out while keeping in character, calling it part of an “evac”.”

“They stayed in character while helping me calm down.”

But despite getting overwhelmed in the fast-paced performance, Graham-Lowery feels that there really should be more events that put audiences at the heart of the story like Elysium, due to the fact it’s a modern take on the traditional theatre experience that genuinely stuck with you.

“It’s a unique experience that feels incredibly hard to replicate, regular theatre is cool and all, but it’s not every day you get to jump into the story.”

With theatres finally welcoming audiences back after nearly two years of closed doors, now seems like the perfect time for specialised live events like these to also make a comeback. And with Salford being home to some truly unique theatre-spaces like The Lowry and the SAT, there are definitely plenty of options for theatre adventures that are “bigger on the inside”.

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