The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – 17th and final time

It’s all over.

I don’t think I will experience anything quite like last night again for a long time to come.  If you had told me a year ago that my first ticket would lead me to see The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable a total of 17 times, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was so nervous that I wasn’t even sure if I was going to like it.  But I did; given the number of friends who only visited the show for the first time a few weeks ago and are now kicking themselves for not going sooner, I’m glad that I discovered it when I did.

So yesterday, 600 of us descended on Paddington for the last hurrah, 99% returning visitors, but word spread like wildfire that there were a few first-timers in our midst (God help them. It’s overwhelming enough first time to an ordinary show – what they must’ve made of the levels of delirium that pervaded every big scene is anyone’s guess).  I joined the queue 2 hours before the doors opened and the line was already snaking halfway around the building – there were many familiar faces and a real party mood, tinged with sadness that it was the last show.  Inside, there was a lovely crowd – none of the elbows-out ruthless attitude which I’d feared.  People held doors for each other, apologised quietly for bumps and trodden-on toes, and made sure people behind them had a good view too (and did their best when a room was packed to the rafters).  Everyone I shared space with was polite and considerate.  Well done fellow audience.

But with 30 characters and scenes running simultaneously all over the building, how the hell are you supposed to choose how to spend your last show?!  Even with access to The Drafting Room (which has a board indicating who’s where doing what at any given time), it was going to be tough to see everything.  I had initially toyed with the idea of floor loops (an hour in the basement, a couple of scenes on the ground floor and the rest in the town and studio – I’ve spent enough time up in the desert recently to lay that to rest) but I realised that there were just a few scenes which I hadn’t seen since my early visits – scenes I just needed to see one last time.  Anything else was a bonus.

We got in about 20 minutes later than I was used to, so my initial plan went out the window.  As we stumbled through the box maze, I could hear the first thumps and strings of Burning Hell for the hoedown in the bar.  The atmosphere was electric, the crowd stood 4 or 5 deep clapping and cheering in a way that’s usually reserved for the finale.  I spotted the return of Badlands Jack (River Carmalt) and broke the ‘no speaking’ rule in my excitement.  I watched that hoedown scene 3 times over and not once did the performers falter.  If I could bottle that feeling and sell it, I would be very rich indeed.

I finally got to what happens to Mary (Laure Bachelot) after her affair with Dwayne – her dance in the trees and woodchips is wracked with guilt and self-loathing.  I later managed to catch Alice and Claude Esteé (Pascale Burgess and Ira Mandela Siobhan) doing their synchronised chair dance in the casting office, dripping with megalomania. This was soon followed by Alice’s dance with Lila (Kath Duggan) on the boardroom table, still smooth and slightly sinister, to the doom-jazz of Street Tattoo by Bohren & Der Club of Gore.  I later wandered down to the ground floor to catch Wendy’s dance through the trees and later to Stanford’s Party.  Four of the scenes on my to-do list.  Utter perfection.

But with more performers than roles, it would’ve been a shame for some to not get their share of the glory.  But Punchdrunk are experts in performance logistics and the way they handled this was so ingenious that I pity anyone who missed it.  At various points, there would be a handover from one actor to another and I was lucky enough to see the role of the PA switch from Stephanie Nightingale to Fania Grigoriou.  They stood in a crowded corridor with Mr Stanford (Sam Booth), he took off Fania’s white mask, both girls slapped him, he handed the mask to Fania who positioned herself opposite Steph.  Simultaneously, Steph removed the string of pearls from around her neck and placed them around Fania’s neck as Fania placed the white mask on Steph’s face.  Slick as hell.  I only wish I’d seen more of these handovers.  Bit by bit, we had a whole new cast take to their roles (some of whom had done more than one role that night) – a real who’s who of Punchdrunk performers.

I also caught the dance between Dwayne, Faye and Mary (Oliver Hornsby-Sayer, Sonya Cullingford and Kate Jackson) in the town – as flirty and fun as ever.  I had one of my fingernails painted red by the Drugstore Girl (Anna Finkel) while I waited for the fight between Andy and Miguel (TJ Lowe and Georges Hann) – this was the very first scene I saw on my first visit.  It was wonderful to have that feeling of bringing things full circle.  Two last scenes ticked off my to-do list and the building was now my oyster.  So I followed Miguel.  After his anointment by the Dust Witch and dance in the sand, he offered his hand and took me back to his tent for me to wash him (I should’ve wrung the sponge out a bit more as I utterly soaked his trousers – sorry Georges!) – a nice little perk which I’d never had in 16 previous visits.

But the finale.  Oh the finale.

After what must’ve been a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding final show, the entire cast pulled out all the stops for one final blistering performance of the hoedown dance.  As they squished everyone into a line for a final bow, the roar from the crowd was deafening and went on for several minutes.  There were many quivering bottom lips and welling eyes at the outpouring of appreciation from the audience.  A fitting and well deserved tribute to a cast who have given so much of themselves to us in the past 12 months.  We then watched rapt as Stanford walked out of the gloom and put a gun to his head and fired the final shot – an inevitable end which ties in nicely with the words in the original blurb stating that the studio closed overnight in mysterious circumstances.

Someone said to me that there are several stages to a Punchdrunk addiction; you come out the end of your first show thinking “I need to find out what’s going on”.  So you go back and scratch the surface of the two love triangles and some of the other characters.  Around visits 3-4 it becomes “I need to see everything”.  So you start to fill in the gaps by following characters and certain actors which naturally leads to “I need to follow X”.  You start to have favourite scenes, dances and actors.  This then develops into “I need to see Y playing Z”.  The more you go, the more you discover that something really sinister is going on, even if it’s barely referred to in speech, there’s plenty of evidence on paper as you read letters and rummage through drawers.  Where is George Buchanan?  What is the Truth Manifesto?  What is Petit Plan and why is the Doctor prescribing it to everyone?  Which brings us neatly back to…. “I need to find out what’s going on”.  I was just about to move onto that final stage.  It’s probably best for my bank balance that I didn’t.

So after many tears and hugs in the bar, we took one last look at the microcosm which had become so familiar, walked back down the metal gantry to collect our belongings and stepped out through those big red concertina doors into the fading daylight for the final time.  It hurt like hell to leave, but I’d had a show which had left me feeling very satisfied.  There are not enough thank yous in the world for the cast and crew who have worked so hard to make this the show that it has been.  Now to let my bank balance recover and save up for the next one.  I’ll see you in the queue next time we mask up.

But for now, I’ll leave you with my favourite piece of music from the show.  If I just close my eyes, it’s 30th October 1962 and I’m stood in Encino by the fountain.  At the end of Straight Street, Dwayne and Mary are dancing by the red Studebaker and through the window of the Drugstore, I can see Harry Greener peddling tins of Miracle Salve from a battered suitcase to a girl behind the counter.

I am home.

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