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36 Inch Penguin: The Society | Review
The Nayland Rock Hotel, once Margate’s most glamorous destination, visited by the rich and famous. A downstairs bar, The Crescent Suite, hosted regular meetings of a little known Society. When the Hotel closed for renovations in the 1980’s the Society and the bar’s Landlady vanished without a trace.
The Crescent Suite never reopened.
For years rumours have persisted of valuable items hidden away in the suite and then, with the death of an American man in 2021, clues came to light of those items whereabouts. The dead man’s children, The Twins, live in the US and can’t come to find them themselves, but…
…with the help of a friendly security guard they can get you inside.
Can you help ?
Date Played: 23 April 2022
Number of Players: 2
Time Taken: ~40 Minutes
We slid into Margate’s The Society on the back of a four escape room day. We’d played Quick-E-Mart, Detention, Frankenscape and Spacescape at Ctrl Alt Delete back to back, with the time so tight between the end of Spacescape and the start time for The Society that we’d had to throw ourselves in a cab and make a desperate dash across Margate’s seafront. We literally fell in through the door at the Nayland Rock Hotel, brains fried, energy depleted, a little dazed and confused. Luckily the “friendly security guard” who met us took pity on us and let us grab a quick breather and chocolate snack. So we were soonfuelled up and ready to get back on the escape room treadmill.
The pause also meant we had a bit of headspace to take in our surroundings. And it’s definitely worth the pause to absorb it. Because The Society takes place in a unique environ. This isn’t an escape room carved out of an industrial space, a warehouse or railway arch, an empty office building or high street shop front. This isn’t an escape room that’s repurposed a space that has no connection to its story. This is a game that takes place in an actual abandoned, empty hotel.
Built in 1895 it was once a famous seafront holiday destination, where Charlie Chaplin vacationed and where Mick Jagger hosted his parents’ Golden Wedding anniversary party. But now the hotel is a shadow of its former self. When cheap overseas holidays lured us Brits away from our seaside towns, once fashionable resorts like Margate fell into a decline and hotels like the Nayland Rock struggled to survive.
The doors closed in the 1980s and while a room or two is still rented out (I think), on the day we visited, most of it was empty apart from some of the larger rooms being used as prop storage for the shoot of Sam Mendes’ upcoming “Theatre of Light”. There are apparently plans to renovate the whole hotel and try and return it to its former glory, but for now it’s a ghostly shell and the perfect space for a creepy (but not scary) ER.
Down into the Bar
And when 36 Inch Penguin’s publicity material say that you’ll be exploring a hotel bar that hasn’t been touched for nearly 40 years, they really mean it. There’s a real visceral thrill in being given a couple of small torches (don’t worry more lighting comes on later) and pointed in the direction of some ropey looking stairs down to a dark and ominous basement bar. Before you head off to investigate you first need to listen to a recording from ‘The Twins’ who’ve hired you to explore the hotel. Now I’m not massively keen on ERs that lean heavily on narrative and expect you to wade through a lot of reading material. I want to be playing puzzles, not reading essays. But paying attention to the recording at this point is kind of important for everything that follows. From then on in the narrative is delivered in fairly small doses, often in quite intriguing and unusual fashion, and which are easy to digest and don’t feel like roadblocks in the way of the puzzle flow.
Once you’re inside the bar, the unique location of a real hotel space really comes into its own. Despite being a real, historical location, the escape room designers haven’t just stuck a load of padlocked boxes in the middle of the room to figure out. This escape room directly engages with the space it is in. The narrative is part of the fabric of the room itself and the actual fabric of the room is sometimes a literal part of the puzzle. It feels really good to be able to get properly hands on with physical puzzles that are built into the historic rooms themselves. One of them had me asking “the hotel owners really let the designer do that?”. But they did. And it’s great fun.
Hand Crafted and Theatrical
In terms of puzzles, there aren’t a vast number and my escape room enthusiast team of two moved through it fairly quickly, but there were several puzzles I had not seen in any other escape room I’ve played. They were clearly lovingly handmade puzzles, both small and large. At one point you get to see the mechanical back of the puzzle you’ve just solved and I was wowed by the craft behind it. There is theatrical ingenuity on display here and when you look at the designers’ history as creators of immersive theatre that’s really no surprise. The room definitely has ‘atmosphere’ and is probably the most genuinely immersive escape room experience I’ve had. The theatricality means that there’s the right level of creepiness (at least for me) without being a full on scare or horror room. All the creeps come from the shadowy spaces and your own (over-active) imagination.
The sound design is also a huge factor in this game, again thanks to the theatrical background of 36 Inch Penguin I suspect. At one point I genuinely thought we were going to be finding actual live actors in the space because the sound design was so effective. And if you’re an 80s kid like me, you will love the music design too. It’s hard to resist just enjoying the disco even when you’re supposed to be puzzle solving.
For me, this room had the almost perfect blend of narrative, searching, small hand held puzzle props and larger physical puzzles. One part of the game involves a physical challenge (but not a difficult one) that only one member of the team can do as the other watches. As the one doing the watching in my team it was hilarious. I’ll say no more because it would be a spoiler but I was crying with laughter as my teammate valiantly carried on.
I was worried that playing The Society as the last game of five in a single day would mean that I was too tired or brain fried to enjoy it. But it is such a great experience that I left totally buzzing. For enthusiasts the complexity of the puzzles might not be too challenging (although a few did leave us head scratching for a while) but the atmosphere, the cleverness and creativity behind the puzzles and the physical interaction with a genuine space are massive plus points. I’m a huge immersive theatre addict and could feel the strong immersive credentials of 36 Inch Penguin at play here. The joy is as much in the atmosphere as the puzzling. I really hope the designers are already working on their next immersive escape room experience because I will genuinely be the first in the queue.
As the Nayland Rock Hotel is scheduled to be refurbished at some point, there’s always a chance that The Society might have to move out and move on. I suspect the gameplay will be just as excellent even in a new location, but you can’t replicate the environment that the game is currently in. It is a character in its own right. So get down to Margate without delay!
The Society is currently open for bookings between 22 July and 4 September 2022. You can read more and book here.
Did this today. Absolutely fantastic
We love to hear it!!