“Come with us as we venture into the depths of the nuclear quarantine zone of AREA 404, where inhabitants roam the wasteland in this post-apocalyptic vision and get set to become a voyeur of this new world…”
Boomtown Fair is an annual music festival held in Winchester. To me, what makes the festival so special is that the site is split into several ‘districts’, each with streets, buildings and inhabitants played by hundreds of actors. Reflected in the impressive design of these districts and stages is a storyline and immersive maze festival-goers (referred to as citizens) can get involved with. The storyline continues with each ‘Chapter’ and has been evolving since its first year in 2009.
After this year’s festival, Boomtown announced the opening of their newest creative venture and venue, Area 404. The launch party, originally planned for Saturday 2nd November, sold out almost straight away and called for three more nights to added due to unprecedented demand. Described as a “multi-room night festival in true Boomtown style”, complete with “creative scene settings, immersive theatre, intimate venues and all the music styles of the fair”.
At the summer’s weekend festival, Area 404 was a new district introduced in 2019. It was on the site of what was previously Sector 6, a nuclear power plant which had gone into meltdown and exploded. This story follows on into the new venue, where the district has been exposed to high levels of radiation and has gone into lock-down.
As a regular attendee of the festival and follower of the storyline, I wasn’t disappointed. On entrance to the venue we were met by actors in orange biohazard suits warning us about the toxic ‘cloud’. “Welcome to paradise,” one of them kept repeating over a megaphone. Sirens sounded and dust swirled around us. Mutated workers of Bang Hai Technologies (a fictional corporation at the festival who owned the power plant) were stumbling around, occasionally collapsing and being revived by others. Actors stood upon balconies, patrolling the perimeter of the venue and shouting down to us or shining spotlights at people.
We came across a window into a darkened room, where one actor was strapped to a chair, writhing around while two others tried to subdue him. Evententally after injecting him with something, he collapsed. After a few minutes he woke up again, looking sickly but seemingly okay. They then noticed us watching them and beckoned me in through a door. I was ushered onto the reclining chair and they swarmed around me, asking what district I had come from and ‘injecting’ liquid onto my arm to check if I was infected or not, (I wasn’t, but my contamination level was at a 2 apparently, which wasn’t great either.) They explained that AMI (artificial machine intelligence, appearing in the form of a robotic woman) had caused this explosion and that they needed supplies from OneCor in order to survive the toxic environment. We promised we would try and get them.
AMI herself appeared in a shrine, robotically moving through a series of actions, only stopping to copy the hand gestures of those passing by. Occasionally, a disgruntled Bang Hai employee would run up to her and angrily bang against the glass. The shady CEO of Bang Hai Industries also appeared, dressed as Satan and sat at the head of a chess board. We managed to get his attention to ask if he was on AMI’s side or not, but all he did was point to his horns and shrug back at us.
Unfortunately, this was as far as I got with pursuing the storyline. But I spotted lots of characters and secret entrance-ways on our explorations around the venue, so was happy to know that it was still happening around me.
The organisers teased that the line up would “span the spectrum of styles represented at the festival,” including high energy live music, reggae, techno, house, drum and bass and disco. The lineup wasn’t released until a few days prior to the event via email, and wasn’t announced on any social media platforms, which was an issue for some attendees. It’s easy to speculate that the organisers might have not released the lineup so as not to detract from the spectacle of the event, but perhaps announcing a headliner might have been a useful compromise.
Core Reactor was the biggest room in the venue, created from parts of the original Sector 6 stage at the festival. Here we watched Sister Nancy & Legal Shot, then the smooth sounds of Chali 2na & Krafty Kuts.
Engine Room was another large live music stage where we danced to United Kingdoms and Slamboree SoundSystem.
Acid Chamber was my favourite room aesthetically, where colourful swirling lights and shapes moved all around the ceiling the walls. I wasn’t sure who played in here, but it was full of bassy techno music.
Mutant Dance was the most popular area, known as ‘the drum and bass room’. We managed to spend a little time here at the start of the night, but after leaving and attempting re-entry we found a one in, one out policy was in place due to the room being so busy.
We explored the Decontamination Room before the DJs started playing, but didn’t see any music in here as we couldn’t find it again once the venue was full. Plastic mannequin limbs strung up by chains from the ceiling in a white tiled room covered in blood splatters.
Overall, the atmosphere of the festival was definitely there, and the effort the production team has put into designing and creating the venue is obvious. I was happy to see parts of the set and stages from the original festival being recycled to create new sets.
Prior to the first event, the organisers reiterated that coming in costume was mandatory in order to fully experience the immersive and theatrical element to the show. Although they weren’t turning anyone uncostumed away, almost all of the attendees had made an effort to fit in with the post-apocalyptic theme.
There were some negatives; the line-up for this particular night wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, and the sound systems weren’t great in some of the rooms. As well as this, although many rooms are undercover, the venue is still predominantly outside so the chilly mid-November weather got to us. Despite this, it was an excellent launch for an exciting new addition to Bristol’s nightlife scene. I can’t wait to see how Area 404 develops over time and what they have in store for the future.
Featured photo: Toby Farmer