Review: From Morning to Midnight, National Theatre

“Well, that was a bit odd”

Sometimes, one knows from the first moments of a show that it just isn’t going to be your cup of tea. And so it was with the opening montage of Melly Still’s new production of From Morning to Midnight, a landmark of German expressionism apparently but for me, a hugely ambitious piece of stagecraft that indulges far too much overt theatricality at the expense of dramatic integrity. It is worth noting ‘twas a preview that I saw and one in which understudy Jack Tarlton had to step in for the injured Adam Godley in the lead role.

Georg Kaiser’s 1912 play uses an episodic form to tell the story of an everyday clerk who is jolted from the mundaneness of his existence when a sultry Italian wanders into his bank, inspiring him to seize the day and make a change to his dull family life. That he does by stealing 60,000 marks from the bank with the intention of eloping with this woman but when she rejects him, the clerk delves into a journey of the soul – both actual and metaphysical – that lasts for a day but feels like a lifetime. Continue reading “Review: From Morning to Midnight, National Theatre”

Review: The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

“Keep your masks on and remain silent at all times”
Such is the instruction as you enter the cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington which has been transformed by the Punchdrunk team into Temple Studios, the venue for their biggest show to date – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. If you’ve been to a Punchdrunk show before, then this will come as no surprise to you (the masks are just as uncomfortable for glasses-wearers); if it is your first, then you should be prepared for something completely different (the masks will still be hot and uncomfortable!) 
Co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle are genuine pioneers of the style of site-specific immersive theatre that seems almost everyday now, yet their ethos is one which still manages to surprise people. They’re in the business of theatrical experiences rather than regular plays and so one should never approach one of their shows looking for traditional presentations of conventional narrative. Instead, the onus is on the audience to locate their own journey through the world that has been created, and find their own unique adventure.
That’s not to say that it is always successful but rather to locate any critique in the relevant context. The experience of exploring around four large floors without any guarantee of coming across any ‘action’ will naturally not appeal to everyone, but to criticise a lack of story is a misjudgement as that is not what they are trying to achieve here. The Drowned Man may be inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck but this a fractured, fragmented version of the source material: scenes or segments just appear into view in a random, unannounced fashion, scattered and refracted like pieces of a kaleidoscope and ultimately unified, if at all, only by being part of one’s own journey through the show.

From exploring the near-deserted expanse of basement dressing rooms to seedy sex cinemas, lunar landscapes to trailer parks in forest clearings, sleazy audition chambers to motel rooms stinking of desperation, the sheer variety and exquisite detail of every single nook and cranny of this substantial space is quite something to behold and offers lots of opportunity for (some possibly verboten) playing around as the picture suggests… And the sequences I happened across held some powerfully intriguing moments too – the best for me happening in Studio 5 with the filming of a perky dance routine degenerating into a violently raunchy threesome and a later return trip there also resulting in another effective scene – regular Punchdrunk artist Conor Doyle giving some excellent work here. 

But a sense of adventurous exploration – we were even clambering on our hands and knees at one point – can only take you so far, especially at the times when it seems like nothing is happening nearby. The feeling of frustration can creep in as you cycle round the same area to little effect, especially when it is as sweatily hot as it was the night we were there (the ground floor bar – pictured – offers a much welcomed cooler environment, complete with live music, if you decide to give yourself an interval), and too many of the segments we witnessed reiterated the similar theme of sexual exploitation without suggesting much more besides – one shouldn’t really be left thinking ‘not another polysexual orgy…”. 

And the dynamics of an audience let loose in this way can sometimes be as exasperating as they are often amusing to watch. For all the talk of this being an imaginative journey for the individual, the way in which the herd mentality kicks in is quite remarkable. The minute a small cluster appears, then people start running to join in, convinced there must be something there – the most amusing incident of this resulted in us breaking the Matrix as the mysterious banging on the door turned out to be someone trying to get out of one of the dressing rooms for the performers – and the determination of some people to always be at the front of what is happening is sadly predictable. 

With some tickets coming in at £50, The Drowned Man does feel ambitiously steep and as unique as the experience may be, it might be hard to justify quite so much for this show, its constituent parts may feel a little underwhelming in an instant analysis. But challenging as it is, there really is something genuinely original in its desire to push us as audience members and redefining just what is to be at the theatre. Everyone should experience at least one Punchdrunk show in their life, even if it is just to confirm that it is not the kind of thing that they like and for all its highs, lows and longueurs, it has been a production that I’ve continued to think about even now, days after I went. Sprawling, big, bold, there’s nothing else like it.

Running time: anything up to 3 hours 
Booking until 30th December 
Note: comfortable shoes are a must and check in your bag at the cloakroom, you do not want to be carrying it around with you, especially in the more crowded areas

Review: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, 360 Theatre

“You know, Aslan, I’m a little disappointed in you”

Aiming to be one of the theatrical events of the summer (although it has always seemed more of a Christmassy story to me), Rupert Goold has turned his customary directorial flair to his own adaptation of CS Lewis’ quintessential English classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But in choosing to mount this production in the threesixty theatre in the grounds of Kensington Gardens, a rather unforgiving purpose-built circular tent, the show faces an uphill struggle from the start to try and create the sense of theatrical magic and wonder that is needed to transport us through the wardrobe along with the four Pevensie children. NB this was a preview performance.

The show is clearly aiming to be a family-friendly spectacular, the varied inhabitants of Narnia are evoked through a cross between Lion King puppetry and Cirque du Soleil physicality – imaginatively done if that’s your sort of thing, though readers of this blog will know it is not mine, at all – but the soulless atmosphere of the space leads to a rather sterile feel which the cast rarely overcome. Even Adam Cork’s music fails to get the pulse racing (the website says ‘the production is a play but does feature some live music and a pre-recorded fully orchestrated soundtrack’ so we’re clearly in “play with songs” territory rather than fully fledged “musical”) as the rather anodyne songs make little lasting impression and the muddy sound design meant there was precious little lyrical clarity. Continue reading “Review: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, 360 Theatre”