A Punchdrunk-National Theatre co-production at
31 London Street, London W2
To November 8
www.punchdrunk.com / www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
This is an unreliable review. It was just me and what I saw will bear little resemblance to what you will experience - such is the heady serendipity of a promenade production by Punchdrunk.
For some time now the masters of immersive theater, they have created here an outrageously audacious theatrical event, which excels in every department. The result will mesmerise you or it might bore you but it will certainly haunt you for weeks after. If your idea of a good night out is a Dame of the British Empire behind a proscenium arch, then this is not the show for you.
On arrival you are issued with a white face mask and you set off through a dark maze, ears assaulted by menacing music. A recorded announcement welcomes you to a movie studio, which you're told is about to close and you're invited to hang around for the final wrap party. You're told you must wear your mask at all times, you must not converse and you are strongly persuaded to go off on your own. Amazingly, everyone complies. Led by a glamorous employee into a large elevator, a small number of you are then unceremoniously bundled out and you find yourself abandoned, in near darkness, to negotiate grim corridors, feeling totally unnerved.
The audience is gradually dispersed at various levels throughout this cavernous disused sorting office (just beside Paddington Station) and are left to wander at will through spaces lovingly converted by a design team led by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns. The four vast, dimly lit floors recreate soundstages and dressing rooms, or a mini version of small-town America, or a forlorn trailer park in a forest clearing, or sepia-toned bedrooms straight out of a heated film noir. The attention to detail in the set dressings is insane and all the while, hidden speakers blare out eerie soundtracks or mournful '50s pop songs.
Stagger through a door and you might find yourself in a vast new space or alone in a small bedroom with a character in mid crisis. Under the expert direction of Barrett and Maxine Doyle (who also choreographs) the large, spirited cast remain generally oblivious to your presence, which just adds to your sense of ghostly isolation.
While there are two intensely passionate love triangle plots unfolding before you, very loosely based on Buchner’s Woyzeck, you will only ever glimpse fragments of these, depending on where you wandered in. Comparing notes with others afterwards will only reveal just how much you missed. This is not so much an "unreliable narrator" as a reader abandoned to the twists of fate.
This lack of narrative heft is a weakness though. Without enough of a cohesive storyline to help the spectators along, the piece often struggles to engage beyond the merely voyeuristic. But, to paraphrase Woody Allen, hey don’t knock voyeurism.
Devotees will of course keep rushing back and that is fine too, but at £40 a pop, is it that totally fair? Another missed opportunity was in the staging of the final jazz club scene. Here, the singers lacked power and their interrupted numbers never really soared when they should have been balm for the weary wanderers.
These are quibbles though in a piece which will stay long in the memory.
Note, you can still get in - it runs until Christmas - and bear in mind these practical tips: travel light, as all bags and coats must be checked (too much prop pilfering apparently), try and wear contacts instead of spectacles, and wear comfy shoes.