Some thoughts on prison-themed stuff, social media outrage and naff bars

It’s possible that a bit of social media thunder might roll in off the back of this article. 

So if you want to discuss the prison-themed immersive theatre cocktail experience Alcotraz or us covering it having read the article, you will find the codeword at the end when you have read it. Call us out if you want to, but just put the codeword in brackets somewhere so we know you’ve read beyond the headline. No codeword, no valid outrage.

It’s pure stag and hen fodder. Another team building night out for people that work in recruitment.

A few days ago we were invited to visit Alcotraz. Although not overly enamoured with the idea, we went along in the same way we go to many new places that open in the city. So we could see what it was all about for ourselves and make an informed opinion.

The bar is on Watson Street near the amphitheatre outside Great Northern Warehouse. From the moment you line up the faux American accents begin. As someone who isn’t big on contact, jumpy surprises or organised fun I was already getting second thoughts but I figured if I didn’t experience it I wouldn’t really be able to talk about it. In true Captain Corrigan fashion, I whispered to myself: “I’m Louis Theroux, I’m Louis Theroux.”

An actor playing a prison guard led us upstairs to a cheap film set where we stood in front of a police line-up backdrop. After that, we were directed into a room full of cells to sit in and given orange jumpsuits and fake prison cards to fill out.

The Main Room And Cell Block Of The Alcotraz Immersive Cocktail Experience In Manchester Featuring Real Metal Bars And A Fake Toilet In Each Cell
The main room or 'cell block' at Alcotraz

Prison isn't fun

In case you’re not already aware, the reality of prison isn’t fun. We live in an age of mass incarceration where millions of people worldwide are locked up in prison, many for petty crimes, with the system overwhelmingly discriminating against people of colour, both here in the UK (see The Prison Reform Trust website) and in the US (see this report on racial inequality in US prisons)

In 2011 it was estimated that approximately 1% of the US prison population, roughly 20,000 people, were innocent

You don’t need to watch Jimmy McGovern’s Time (2021), 13th (2017), A Prayer Before Dawn (2017), Starred Up (2013), Into The Abyss (2011) or Hunger (2007) to know prison is bad. 

You can also appreciate why people don't like the idea of a naff bar making money off of it. 

An Actor Playing A Convict At Alcotraz The Prison Themed Bar On Watson Street In Manchester
An actor playing an 'inmate' talking in an American accent whilst also trying to be COVID-compliant

Cocktails and accents

This awareness is very much at the forefront of your mind when you’re trying to think of a funny but inoffensive crime to put on your Alcotraz jail card. “Ate a swan”, I wrote, regrettably.

The basic premise of Alcotraz is, you sit in a small room that looks like an Alcatraz cell block and you drink cocktails. In between the cocktails, the “guards” and an “inmate” come and razz you a bit with banter. There’s a faint storyline of smuggling contraband but mostly you just sort of sit there twiddling your thumbs until the actors interact with you.

A Bartender Making Drinks In The Fake Kitchen At Alcotraz Immersive Cocktail Experience In Manchester
The bar at Alcotraz which is meant to look like a prison kitchen

Another awkward element - as if we were in some sort of mockumentary - was that in between the cringeworthy “guard” banter, a palpably nervous bartender speaking in his real voice, came to ask us what sort of cocktails we’d like and then returned at intervals to serve the drinks. Post banter, he popped back for a debriefing on what was in them. 

I felt a bit of sympathy for him and the actors. It brought back bittersweet memories of having to do shifts as a zero hour-contracted horse mascot at Chester Racecourse to pay my bills when I broke my arm a few years ago. I doubt Alcotraz is a dream acting gig.

One Of The Cocktails Being Served At Alcotraz The Prison Themed Bar Experience In Manchester
One of the gin cocktails being delivered by a barman dressed up as an 'inmate'

The cocktails were pleasant enough. An aviation-style Blue Moon with notes of Palma Violets, a mule-style one with ginger beer, a frozen piña colada/daiquiri hybrid. It’s hard to fully take in what a masked bartender is saying through fake prison bars as music plays and men with fake accents refer to someone behind you as “the Fallowfield fiddler”. The bartender spoke with passion nonetheless.

Would I go again? You already know I wouldn’t. In the same way I wouldn’t choose to go to any immersive experience - poor taste or not. It’s pure stag and hen fodder. Another team-building night out for people that work in recruitment.

That said, some people must like it because this is Alcotraz’s third UK location. Some people will enjoy it regardless of what offended people say. 

A shock I wasn’t prepared for was the price, it’s £29.99 a ticket and you still have to bring your own bottle of spirit. Full disclosure: this was a press invite for us so we didn't have to pay. 

Two Mugs Of Gin Cocktail At Alcotraz Immersive Cocktail Experience In Manchester
Two mugs of gin cocktail on what is meant to be a small prison sink, out of shot is a fake toilet

Social media outrage built in

The associated uproar? Inevitable. The bar arrives in Manchester at an especially impassioned time in the national psyche. A petition to revoke the license has been signed by 98 people and prison charities including Clean Sheet have condemned the bar since its inception. Social media outrage is very much built into the concept.

The Wardens Office At Alcotraz In Manchester Is A Prison Themed Immersive Cocktail Bar On Watson Street
The 'warden's office' at Alcotraz which is a room with a desk in it

Towards the end of the two-hour session, I was expecting a slideshow or a leaflet. I thought any minute now something piecemeal will happen that suggests Alcotraz has read the room. 

Something on penal reform? A portion of profits going towards supporting the falsely imprisoned? Giving those who’ve served a sentence a job? In an age of brands jumping on causes you’d at least expect some sort of token gesture. But there was nothing. We have asked the PR agency if the people behind Alcotraz are donating any of their profits to charity or anything, but they haven't confirmed either way yet. 

The thing about Alcotraz is it wants to sit alongside prison-themed entertainment like Orange Is The New Black but unlike the show, it doesn’t want to get its hands dirty with the associated issues. You can't get away with that in this day and age without flack. Especially when you’re making a wedge off the commercialisation of misery.

Some Of The Gin Based Cocktails On Offer At Alcotraz An Immersive Cocktail Experience In Manchester Close To Deansgate
The metal drinking vessels used for cocktails

We all knew what Alcotraz would be before we stepped inside but we just wanted to make sure. Another crap London export looking to cash in up north. If you want to spend thirty quid, there are more fun ways to do it without pissing off Twitter. Likewise, if you want to funnel your outrage into something productive see the feature box below.

The codeword is: Pebble.

Alcotraz Manchester: Cell Block Three Four, 1A Watson Street, Manchester, M3 4EE

UPDATE - since publishing this article Alcotraz has sent us the following response:

"Having launched various experiences in the UK that bring to life fictional worlds, such as the Wild West inspired ‘Moonshine Saloon’ and the nautical adventure of ‘Pirates of The Hidden Spirit’, the Alcotraz concept draws on Hollywood Movies and TV that have brought to life fictional prison stories. With subtle references to cult American entertainment influences, such as Prison Break, Orange is the New Black and Shawshank Redemption, guests have the opportunity to watch an experience unfold around them which they would only normally see on TV or cinema screens. 

"Beyond the fictional worlds that we draw inspiration from we recognise there are harsh realities faced in the real world, and in particular within the UK prison system today. In the four years that the Alcotraz production has been running, the team have worked with local communities and charities to both support rehabilitation and raise awareness of real-world problems faced within the prison system. With the increasing reach of the Alcotraz concept, it is our desire to educate our audiences on the real-world problems in which often our fictional world takes inspiration, through marketing materials pre and post their experience. We are currently in early talks with local and national charities in how we can offer support, whether in the form of donations, awareness or using the company's team of talented actors, directors and teachers to name a few in running training or guidance workshops. We are looking to support charities that are striving to create a just, humane and effective penal system as well as supporting prisoners, ex-prisoners and young people at risk of offending to find a way out of the justice system and build a stable, rewarding life they can be proud of. 

"The Alcotraz experience is no way intended to draw on the difficulties and harsh realities faced by people in the UK prison system today and instead brings to life an entirely fictitious narrative that places the guests at the centre of our own unique story. The experience provides a safe, regular and supportive workplace and creative space to a diverse pool of hundreds of actors across the country who are integral to bring to life the detailed and intricate storyline of the experience. At a time when theatre has been so badly hit by the pandemic, such work is more important than ever. As a company, whilst striving to create impressive experiences that immerse guests into fictional worlds, whether that be a prison setting or a wild west saloon, we will continue to recognise the real-world difficulties beyond these fictional worlds and continue to evaluate how we can best support those around us."

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