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 Uncommercial Traveller, Punchdrunk and Arcola

“You will need a map, a sense of adventure and the most important ingredient, an incurable curiosity”

Though the big name Punchdrunk show at the moment is The Crash of the Elysium, thrilling children both young and old as part of the Manchester International Festival, there is another show which has snuck into London rather under the radar, The Uncommercial Traveller. A real community-based production, a collaboration between the Punchdrunk enrichment programme and the Arcola’s 50+ Theatre group, it was inspired by Dickens’ work of the same name, a collection of literary sketches and reminiscences of his night-time wanderings, delving into the hidden side of Victorian London.

At just £6 and a 30 minute running time, expectations had been accordingly adjusted, so it actually came of something of a pleasant surprise to find out there was more to the experience after the tickets had been booked. An atmospheric audio journey is provided for you, starting from Hackney Town Hall, which takes 50 minutes to wind through the history-filled streets of East London before ending up at a final location which sends you right into the heart of this Dickensian world where an individual adventure awaits. Continue reading “Review: The Uncommercial Traveller, Punchdrunk and Arcola”

Review: The Crash of the Elysium, Punchdrunk at MediaCity Salford

“When I say ‘run’, we run”

Despite being a big Doctor Who fan and having a few days leave booked up in the North-West to visit family and become a godfather to the lovely Samuel Luke, I hadn’t intended to go and see The Crash of the Elysium, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s take on the long-running BBC sci-fi phenomenon. It is a family show, designed for kids aged 6-12 and when first announced, unaccompanied adults were no being let in. But more importantly, my first Punchdrunk experience, The Duchess of Malfi last year, was distinctly underwhelming and so there wasn’t quite the must-see aspect to this, even once a set of evening performances for adults were hastily added. A serendipitous alignment of some esteemed company making the trip possessing a spare ticket and me having a free night (plus absolutely no willpower to resist in the end!) combined to get us along to MediaCity near the Lowry complex in Salford for a Saturday night of Time Lord-related antics but with no sofa to hide behind…

Written by Tom MacRae, a scriptwriter from the Doctor Who team, the story starts with the group, 12 or so of us, being invited to look at an exhibition about the mysterious disappearance of the 19th Century steamship the Elysium, but there’s barely time to look at the exhibits before SAS-type troops burst into the room, declaring an alien spaceship has crash-landed and we’re all needed to help the investigation. A brief military training exercise once we’ve all suited up in decontamination suits and protective masks sees us assigned numbers and roles within teams and then the serious business of alien investigation is started. Continue reading “Review: The Crash of the Elysium, Punchdrunk at MediaCity Salford”

Review: Duchess of Malfi, ENO & Punchdrunk at Great Eastern Quay

“Follow that bassoon”

Much like 3D glasses at the cinema, whoever came up with the idea of close-fitting masks for Punchdrunk’s shows, clearly does not wear glasses. I had a devil of a time hooking them over the mask and into the elastic at the sides and making sure they were secure. It may seem like a little thing but when you’re spending three hours wandering round looking for things to watch, it becomes a little frustrating having to constantly ensure your glasses don’t fall off.

A collaboration between ENO and Punchdrunk, The Duchess of Malfi is an immersive production of John Webster’s story set to a new score by Torsten Rasch. Spread over three floors of a disused office complex in outer East London, it is a typical Punchdrunk production in that the audience is left to find their own story through their own experience as they wander unguided to find impromptu scenes taking place in all sorts of strange environments. Continue reading “Review: Duchess of Malfi, ENO & Punchdrunk at Great Eastern Quay”