Tag Archives: Drowned Man

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.

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – A final farewell

In little over a week, I will walk out of Temple Studios for the final time.  Those words fill me with dread, but it is true.  I fully expect to be a weepy, mascara-streaked wreck, along with countless other Punchdrunk addicts with whom I will share that last, precious show.  Several have become friends through a facebook group, resulting in many evenings of standing in a queue together (sometimes pre-show drinks in a pub) before wandering alone for 3 hours through the gloomy world of Temple Studios and then re-convening in the bar for excitable post-show analysis.  People I never knew a year ago who are the sole source of my addiction – habit-enablers, every last one of them.

I never expected this to happen.  Seriously.  (I would’ve budgeted for it for a start).

A year ago, when I booked my first ticket I was some semblance of a normal, rational person.  The people who had seen Les Mis 7 times?  Weird.  Just weird.  Why not go and see something else?  I’d seen a few London shows twice and even seeing The 39 Steps 3 times seemed borderline ridiculous (it is good though – if you haven’t seen it, you should go. /tangent).  My typical budget for theatre is around the £30 mark and I will move heaven and earth to find a good seat for the cheapest price I can get.  I winced at spending £45+ for that first ticket, thinking to myself “this had better be worth it…”

My first visit was utterly overwhelming.  It took me about 3 days to get my head around everything I’d seen (and not seen).  Various friends went and we tried to compare scenes – only they’d been on an entirely different journey to me, so it was hopeless.  Other friends were deeply suspicious and remain so to this day (I like to think they just fear what it’ll do to their bank balance if they go just once).  I even persuaded my hairdresser to go – she never even knew anything like this existed, but she loved it.  If you are prepared to give it a chance, I actually think Punchdrunk are remarkably accessible compared to many other shows which are a bit ‘out there’.

But it took 4 months for me to go back.  I thought a second (perhaps third) time would be enough to see all of it.  I must’ve seen most of it, surely?  No.  After that second visit, I had sand in my shoes, (stage) blood in my hair and a head full of questions.  I started to buy tickets in 2s and 3s, wondering if that would ever be enough to see all of it.  A series of Q&A sessions only served to reinforce my admiration for the show, the design, the meticulous detail (right down to the smell of TCP in the doctor’s office), the choreography, the sheer logistical nightmare of running scenes simultaneously, requiring performers to walk into opposite ends of a room at precisely the same moment and start a scene with the absolute surety that the other person will be there exactly on cue, the constant self-referencing which neatly ties one aspect to another.  One of the directors had estimated that to watch every single scene in some sort of order would take around 12-15 hours.  Their cast are trained in multiple roles so there are something like 86 possible permutations.  It is mind boggling in every single way.

Yet they make it look so easy.

It very definitely isn’t.  I’ve seen a few immersive/promenade/contemporary things in the last year, some more successful than others.  Part of the problem is that Punchdrunk have set the benchmark so high in every respect that it’s hard to draw comparison.  I have found myself in other productions getting annoyed that a tangle of cables hasn’t been boxed in, that ‘fine dining’ has been served on paper plates with plastic cutlery, that there are bottlenecks when moving audience from one location to another, that there is a short wait for it to be my (or my group’s) turn to see a scene.  But this is what you let yourself in for with experimental theatre – the ideas are often great and each respective company has clearly expended their every last resource and ounce of creativity to make it work to the best of their ability – if I wanted something safe and predictable, I’d go and sit in a numbered seat in an auditorium.

So it is with the impending 17th visit to The Drowned Man that I look back on everything I’ve experienced.  Theatre going won’t be the same ever again.  Whilst I will be incredibly sad once it’s all over, I find solace in knowing that they have many ideas, if they can just find the right building.  It has also taught me many things; I will be directing a play at my own theatre for February 2015 and this has given me the confidence to be brave with my set design and lighting – to not be afraid of the careful use of silence.

So I would like to say thank you to Punchdrunk, to their performers for their boundless stamina and the exquisite tenderness of those 1:1 encounters which, for a fleeting few minutes at least, were for me and me alone.  To their backstage crew/front of house team who tirelessly keep the nuts and bolts of the show ticking over with such finesse – I will forever remember Summer 2013 to Summer 2014 as the year when one theatre production suddenly and unexpectedly consumed my every waking moment (and some very lucid dreams too).  I wish I’d accepted sooner that I’d be going as many times as I did – I might’ve stood a chance of following characters one at a time in a more methodical fashion rather than running around trying to see everything.

Time to start saving up for the next one…


Before this starts getting too morose, one of the things that came out of the facebook group was an immense amount of fan art – there are some incredibly talented designers in our midst.  I, however cannot draw very well.  Especially not freehand on a computer, given that I am naturally left handed and use a mouse with my right hand.

None of these things prevented me from expressing myself by the medium of MS Paint.

I apologise for the following pictures.  They are unsuitable for those who wish to treasure their memories intact and for those with a weak bladder.  If you should wish to open the Pandora’s Box of my scenic interpretations, you will find them here.

Felix and Maxine – I am so sorry.  Facebook made me do it.

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – Visit 12

For reasons I can’t think of, I didn’t do write ups for visits 7 to 11.  Apologies if you’re looking for them.  But for now they all blur into one and I couldn’t tell you for certain whether I saw a particular scene on visit 7 or visit 8.  Although visits 9 & 10 were both the same evening as I did the legendary ‘double’, with the second performance of the night being on the £85 premium ticket which gave a prologue (a nice touch for helping first timers to orientate themselves) but also gave me access to the Drafting Room – which I only found on visit 9 and gives you lots of details about characters, who they are and where their story takes them through the building (I stupidly didn’t make as much use of this as I should’ve done).  Now that premium tickets have ceased and there are 2 new types of tickets – Luna’s List and Studio Exec – wild speculation has ensued about what will happen to the premium rooms.

When The Drowned Man opened, it was originally going to finish on 31st December 2013.  So we booked tickets for New Year’s Eve (because where else would any self respecting Punchdrunk addict want to spend the final hours of the year other than in Temple Studios?  That was visit 7).  But the news we’d all hoped for came in November: Run extended to 23rd February 2014.  So tickets were booked again to say a fond farewell to a place we had come to love and cast who had bewitched our hearts and minds.  Because nasty Crossrail were going to gut the building, do some railway stuff in the basement and turn the place into flats.  But extension after extension was granted to Punchdrunk and although tickets currently go up to April, there’s talk of performers being contracted through to September.  Farewell bank balance, it was nice knowing you.

So on ‘Not The Last Show’ (my show 11), a friend insisted that I follow the character of William as played by Paul Zivkovich.  I did and he broke my heart.  Ok so it doesn’t quite excuse him murdering his girlfriend, but to witness his descent into paranoia was devastating.  It occurred to me that in 10 visits, I had never really followed any of the main characters as listed on the little bit of paper (the two love triangles: William, Mary, Dwayne and Wendy, Marshall, Dolores).  I’ve caught snippets here and there, but never a whole sequential loop.  There are plenty of other characters on the list too, but I figured it was time to stray out of the peripheral and back to the main stories.  My trouble recently has been not knowing where to find people at any given time, so I’ve simply ended up watching scenes I’ve already seen because I know that will lead me to a character I haven’t followed.  I do of course enjoy those scenes (I am yet to get bored of the Hoedown), but I know there’s an untold number that have so far eluded me and I want to see them.

Having frivolously shelled out £1 for delivery to have ticket in hand, I managed to skip the Box Office queue, get through the cloakroom and into the first lift.  With a bit of knowledge on where to find my targets, I raced up from basement to ground floor to the Studio 4 set to find – as hoped – Wendy (Leslie Ann Kraus) and Marshall (James Finnemore) lying on the bed in their caravan.  I’ve never seen either of these two in these roles (I’ve always caught snippets with them played by other performers) so was intrigued to see how they’d compare.  They didn’t disappoint.

Wendy’s dance in the trees

With Marshall gone and other audience following him, I had Wendy all to myself.  She got up and then began her dance through the trees – one with the first flickers of suspicion, climbing and sketching her limbs through the air.  As she came down there was a glance as she clocked me, a terrified and troubled look in her eyes.  I was treated to these glances and stares throughout almost the entirety of her loop, initially seeming to unnerve her by the fact that she thought she could see me, but as more audience accumulated, she seemed almost to search for me as a source of familiarity.  As the parallel female version of William, Wendy too has her descent into paranoia.  At one point she threw herself at me, grabbed my throat and hissed something into my ear – but with her fragile emotional state it was all I could do not to gather her into my arms to try and offer some sort of comfort.  As she walks into Mr Stanford’s party to witness Marshall’s infidelity (and the complicity of her best friend), she shakes with such violence that you wonder if she might be physically ill.

As the scenes came full circle, I switched over to Marshall to follow his loop, but still unable to get Wendy’s gut-wrenching arc out of my head.  This only served to make him seem all the more guilty.  Yet his character seems to be yearning for some sort of escape, so that the more paranoid Wendy becomes, the further he plunges into his affair.  Yet as I followed him (occasionally difficult with large numbers of people doing the same), I started to realise just how easily he is influenced and that much of his infidelity is engineered by others rather than being motivated solely by his own desires.  It is these other cold, calculating characters who lay a trail of evidence to ensure that all of Wendy’s suspicions are confirmed, yet Marshall seems to be genuinely unaware of their agenda, especially once drugged ahead of Stanford’s party.  But as we are led to witness his murder, he seems to stumble up the hill, totally oblivious of what’s about to happen to him.  Whether he is sorry for his actions (or sorry that he got caught) remains ambiguous to the last, but he simply becomes collateral damage in what appears to be the grand design: to provoke a very real reaction from Wendy – just for the camera.

But in many ways, it is having followed many of those ‘other’ characters in previous visits which has perhaps altered my perspective of what I see; without the context of the machinations going on behind the scenes, this would just be a textbook affair.  But the level of manipulation is such that this begs a very unsettling question: how many of our decisions and our actions are truly our own?

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – Visits 4, 5 and 6

Seeing as my previous 3 blog posts about ‘The Drowned Man’ have covered what the show is and how it works, this one is more about the finer nuances and how, even after 6 visits, I’m still nowhere near done with Temple Studios.  Friends have accused me of having an addiction (perhaps they are right), but given that I know people who are already into double figures (some, well into the twenties), I think I’ve been remarkably restrained.  The truth is that a Punchdrunk show doesn’t come around very often and when they do, they’re usually small scale and tickets are like gold dust.  And even when tickets are readily available, the show can only last as long as the building – Crossrail has a compulsory purchase order on the site and their demolition works begin on 1st April 2014.  There will be no transfer, no finding of a new home for Temple Studios to reside in, no bringing it back in a few years – the building dictates the show that goes in it, so once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.  Perhaps this explains my resolve to make the most of it while it still exists.

I am still in awe of the set design, the richness of detail, right down to the lingering scent of TCP in the doctor’s office.  The fact that if you were to go through the filing cabinets, you’d find pens, pencils, rubber bands, paperclips, documents, files with personal details, CVs, bits of scripts, memos etc.  There is also the sheer logistics of a performance on this scale, the way that as you follow a character through a door, another character is walking through the door on the opposite side of the room and the conversation starts between them – there is a naturalism to this which requires so much precision to get right.  And as the action loops (each loop lasting about an hour and repeated 3 times over), there is the constant moving about of props and costume, tidying things up and putting them somewhere else to be found by another character later on.

The thing with repeat visits is that it gives you the opportunity to see different permutations of their actors in the various roles.  The lead characters (as well as some of the peripheral ones) have some very physically demanding choreography, so it seems that ‘understudies’ are switched in quite frequently to give the main actors a bit of a break in a smaller role.  But regardless of combination and role, all of the actors are working solidly for 3 hours without a break and it’s hard to know whom is understudying whom.  On Friday and Saturday nights there is a ‘double’ performance (5pm and 9pm), so that is 6 hours of performance in a 7 hour time slot – these people are without doubt the hardest working cast in London.  I’m yet to ‘do the double’ so I don’t know whether they switch the cast about for the second performance of the evening.

One of the things that fascinates me most is the how the number of audience affects the dynamics of the performance.  On visit 5 I managed to get into one of the first few lifts, so the place was largely empty.  I headed straight up to the desert on the top floor in the hope of finding the elusive and mysterious Dust Witch (I’ve tried to follow her before and in the split second where I’ve looked away from her, she has vanished into the gloom), but as she was nowhere to be seen, I was drawn across the sand to the lilting sounds of ‘Catalina La O’, one of my favourite salsa songs.  There I found 2 men (Andy and Miguel?) and a girl (Faye), who was dancing flirtatiously for them.  There was just me and two other masked audience, giving a real impression that we were out a long way from civilisation.  By sheer coincidence, I was back in the same spot when this scene was repeated on the third loop, but this time there must have been at least 30 masked audience encircling the whole scene, adding a certain sinister claustrophobia to that very same bit of choreography.

If you can get into one of those early lifts, you may well be the first person to stumble across a scene.  This happened to me on visit 6 when having walked out of the lift, I seemed to be the only person to have noticed all the movement going on in the drugstore on the main street.  I walked in through the door and there was salesman Harry Greener in the middle of a song and dance routine advertising Miracle Salve to the Drugstore Girl at the counter while she polished the glasses.  It wasn’t simply a matter of waiting for the audience to show up and then ‘doing a bit of acting’, they were both very much in full swing and performing to no one but themselves – it was a good 2 minutes before we were eventually joined by another audience member.  In those early minutes while the lifts are scattering people around the building, the actors could easily be kicking their heels until someone stumbles across them, but they aren’t.  The scene goes ahead, audience or not.  And when you’re the only person watching, it seems rude to leave.

The main thing I have learnt is that while I may have a list of characters whom I would love to follow for a whole loop, it would be wrong to make that my game plan for the evening.  Gut feeling and instinct will always take you on a far more interesting journey.  1) Being hell bent on finding one character will mean you missing all sorts of other stuff and 2) taking a chance on whomever you find first may very well lead you to the very person that you were hoping to see in the first place.  The Drowned Man is very much like a scratch card – with every return, you scrape off a little more of the silver foil to reveal the bigger picture underneath.

So where better to begin my New Year’s Eve celebrations than in my beloved Temple Studios?  If you’ve got £47.50 to spare and can be in Paddington by 5pm, I’ll see you in the queue tonight.  And my new year’s resolution?  To get myself over to New York to go and experience the wonders of ‘Sleep No More’, Punchdrunk’s riff on Macbeth.  I truly am hooked.  I would like to wish all of you a happy, healthy, prosperous and mischief-filled 2014.  Thank you very much for reading – I am always happily amazed that anyone wants to read anything that I’ve written!

‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk is on at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, W2 1DJ until Sunday 23rd February 2014.  PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your entry time.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.

The Drowned Man – Punchdrunk (Round 3)

I am usually dubious about going to see a show multiple times.  I know of people who proudly proclaim to have seen Les Miserables 8+ times.  In my experience, particularly with West End musicals, the first time always amazing, because everything is new; the jokes are fresh, the plot twists take you by surprise.  But with repeat visits (especially when there has been a change of cast), you know exactly what’s coming so you don’t get the same surprise and it’s not ‘quite’ the same as last time.  I’m no fan of James Corden, but he was Francis Henshall in my first visit to One Man, Two Guvnors and for me, no one could ever match that performance, let alone top it.  So I am usually slightly disappointed at the end and wish I’d seen something else.

So why see The Drowned Man for a third time?  And why have I booked another 3 visits for 2014?  Because providing you take a different route and make different choices each time, you will always come across different characters and different fragments of stories.  The world of Temple Studios becomes strangely familiar.  I now have a good grasp of the geography of the building and each floor.  On my first visit, I was unprepared and found the whole thing quite overwhelming, but still enjoyed it.  But I have now become far more relaxed about making spontaneous decisions and being distracted (or refusing to be distracted).

But friends had started mentioning 1:1 performances, where a character will select a member of the audience and take them off to be locked in a room for a private encounter.  (Yes I know exactly what you’re thinking – bear with me).  On visit #2 I was vaguely aware of them, but not sure of how to go about giving myself the best chance of being chosen.  My handbag is only small, but I decided to leave it with the cloakroom this time.  Bingo.  As I discovered, even the smallest bag would’ve made it difficult for the actors to physically manipulate you (yes, yes, bear with me…).

I racked up four 1:1s in one night; in most cases, the character wants to let you in on a secret or tell you their side of the story.  The door is locked not to stop you from getting out, but to stop anyone else from intruding on what is a very personal experience.  This is an extra detail to the story and it is just for you.  They will not harm you or touch you inappropriately (they’d have a lawsuit on their hands if they did), but they will invade your personal space and touch e.g. your hands, arms, shoulders, waist, back.  They might switch the lights out or blindfold you.  They might even give you a shot of whisky.  If you are not comfortable with this concept, I would suggest not putting yourself in a position where you’ll be selected.  If they offer their hand to you, you can always politely refuse.  If you take it, there is no going back!  Every time I took the hand, I had that knot in my stomach;  you are held on that knife-edge between terror and curiosity – a combination of “Oh my God!  Where are you taking me?!” and “Oooh, where are we going?”

I found myself following Romola, the receptionist; she was on the floor scribbling on a piece of paper, so I knelt down to see what she was writing.  She looked me square in the eyes, so I held her gaze.  Then she offered her hand.  I took it and followed her into a motel room, wondering what the hell I was letting myself in for.  She took off my mask and held me close as she told me about her dream and how she was desperately trying to remember something.  She then took me to sit with her in the front seats of the car, very much in view of the audience who’d been waiting for us to come out of the motel.  She was clinging onto my hand quite tightly, then she went still and her grip loosened.  Words poured out of the car radio that she’d been found dead at the canyon.  I felt compelled to stay with her for a minute or two.  It’s very easy to become emotionally involved with a character after a 1:1.

Romola’s list – she gave it to me to decipher.

It does seem however that the 1:1 is a fickle thing and elusive.  Not all characters do them and it’s a combination of being in the right place at the right time (including your proximity to them) and how engaged you are.  If you’re too stalkerish and pushy, they’ll just pick someone else. If you are the only person following them, this may coincide with one of their time slots to do a 1:1 and will increase your chances of getting one (my second one was a bit of an accident – I’d lost the person I was following so decided to just follow whichever actor I saw next and pick up their storyline.  One came running past, so I ran after him and I was the only one there – so within 10-15 seconds of latching onto him, a 1:1 was offered!  It did feel a little futile given that I had no idea of who his character was…).  If they offer their hand, be brave and take it – absorb yourself in their story.  After every single one, I walked out with a bit of an adrenaline buzz.

Sometimes you will find a character by themselves, no other audience about, quietly doing something.  Even though you haven’t been taken off and locked in a room with them, this can still be a deeply personal experience.  One of my favourite moments was watching the security guard sitting in his office doing a detailed sketch of a rose from a book.  When I went back later, by sheer coincidence, it was evidently the same part of his loop and he was working on the shading and colouring.  A ‘proper’ 1:1 is a nice perk, but it’s by no means an essential part of your visit.  But as with all these things, the old adage of “you’ll find it when you stop looking for it” is very true!

But a small part of me hopes I’ll get another one on a future visit – they are fascinating….

‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk is on at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, W2 1DJ until Sunday 23rd February.  PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your entry time.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.


The Drowned Man – Punchdrunk (second helpings)

I won’t lie.  I have spent a good part of this morning going through the National Theatre’s ticket page to see when I’d be able to go again before the prices go up on 10th December.  I’ve identified a few windows of opportunity (I’m not addicted, I can quit any time I like – the fact that I’m going next Wednesday is irrelevant).  After last night’s show, I joined some fellow repeat offenders in a Paddington pub for dinner and a post-show analysis.  I felt like a complete novice with only 2 visits under my belt, especially given that some people were already into double figures and in a blatant display of Punchdrunk nerdism (reminiscient of the convention geeks from Galaxy Quest), someone had made a map of the whole building.  My kinda people!

This is a show which only gets richer and more rewarding with every visit, so it’s not hard to see why some people are going back over and over again.  My first trip was back in July, and as soon as I stood on the gantry, I was wondering why it had taken me 4 months to come back (in all fairness, a summer of rehearsing then performing Boeing Boeing, then a salsa weekend and a small bit part in After the Dance might be something to do with it).  But this time I knew exactly what I was in for and had a vague grasp of what was on each floor.  But even so, I was still in for plenty of surprises.

The most important thing to remember is that with 34 actors scattered across the whole building, all with their own things to do whether you are there or not, you will, by default, miss about 90% of what is going on.  So find yourself a performer and follow them.  If you find two and they split off in different directions, make a decision quickly and go with it (I still had trouble with this at times, especially when there were 8 characters in one room); there are no wrong choices, but if you watch a scene and the room empties and you don’t go with them, it may take you a while to find a character again.  Do explore, but following characters will give you more fragments of the story.

This time I thankfully managed to find a scene within a minute of getting out the lift – I also got to see more scenes with speech (last time was mostly movement), and by latching onto characters, I actually discovered rooms I never found last time – and I really thought I’d scoured every inch of the building from top to bottom!  I had also managed to get my head around the ‘loop’ concept; every character goes through 2 and a half loops of their action across the 3 hours before we all end up in the wilderness for the final murder.  So it does repeat itself, but it’ll probably be about an hour and 10 minutes before you see the same scene again.  What I find most amazing is how the action can be both cyclical AND sequential.  By following Lila (one of the peripheral characters) for one whole loop, I discovered Stanford’s office, a sound effects room and a cinema – but there was no obvious beginning or end to her story, it was absolutely seamless.

A word of advice – the cloakroom staff were quite keen for me to take my coat in, insisting that it was about as warm inside as it was standing in the loading bay in November.  I am prone to feeling cold, but remember that you will spend that 3 hours (or less, depending on your entry time) walking around, often at quite a pace, up and down flights of stairs.  I was wearing a long top, cardi, jeans and boots and I was quite comfortable like that, although the staircases are a bit nippy, but you’re rarely there for long.  This time it was considerably less humid – a big advantage when wearing a plastic mask for 3 hours.  But it’s still worth taking tissues to wipe your face intermittently!

I am already stupidly excited to be going back on Wednesday – I am going to be insufferable for the next 5 days.  I doubt Wednesday will be my last; if I am bankrupt by Christmas, you will know why.

‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk is on at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, W2 1DJ until Sunday 23rd February.  PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your entry time.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.


The Drowned Man – Punchdrunk (Temple Studios)

Standing on a metal gantry waiting to enter, everyone is handed a small piece of paper:

“Inside the gates of a film studio, Wendy and Marshall struggle to make ends meet.  When Marshall meets Dolores, they strike up an affair.  Wendy confronts Marshall about the infidelity, but he denies everything.  As Wendy’s paranoia becomes uncontrollable, she goes to a party and witnesses the affair first hand.  Wendy’s state of panic accelerates until she leads Marshall into the wilderness and murders him.”


On the other side is an inverse storyline with the genders switched, set outside the gates of the studio featuring William, Mary and Dwayne in the corresponding roles to their initials.  This is a nod to Büchner’s tragedy Woyzeck, but these are the only clues we are given to the story.

Forget everything you think you know about theatre or performance.  Immersive theatre gives you the rare opportunity to wander around fantasy world and discover the characters who inhabit it, to follow them through their story and their interactions, all providing extra peripheral details to the main storyline.  But with no map and no one telling you where to go, what to watch or how long to stay, it is entirely up to you to find them in this great sprawling 4-storey building and decide for yourself who the main characters are.   It’s a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole with added ‘press the red button now’ features.

We are sent down a very dark corridor into a small room and handed a mask each and asked to wear it for the duration of the performance – it seems an odd request at first but as we discover, with around 600 marauding audience members and only 32 actors, it really helps to distinguish between the two (so as to prevent audience following audience).   We are then ushered into a service lift and plunged into the dimly-lit world of Temple Studios in 1950s Hollywood and the trailer park that surrounds it.

The first things that hit you are the sheer scale of the place and the level of intricate detail in everything you can see – right down to the strands of hair in the hairbrush on the dressing table in one of the houses; it’s as though this whole world has been there for decades.  It doesn’t take long to find the performers – wandering into a hair salon/cafe on the main street, there are 2 men fighting over a girl – there’s not much in the way of speech, just contemporary dance (people are often put off by this, worried that they won’t understand it, but fear not – their facial expressions, body language and movement will tell you everything you need to know – and it’s pretty obvious from the off that one man is very angry with the other about fooling around with his girlfriend).

I spent a fair bit of time wandering around the various rooms, just seeing what was there and it took me a while to get my bearings.  It slowly becomes apparent that the actors all have their own things to do and places to be, and they will go about their business whether they have an audience or not – they will not wait for you to show up or repeat anything.  This is a great example of the modern phenomena of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), always thinking that something more interesting or important may be going on somewhere else – so do you stick with the character(s) you’ve found or do you wander off elsewhere?  What is that noise coming from down the corridor?  Where are they going in such a hurry?  Why are so many audience following them?  Where does that lead?  It probably took me a good hour to feel comfortable with choosing a character, following them, watching their next encounter and then either choosing to stick with them or follow someone else and having the courage to accept my own decisions rather than worrying about what else I might be missing.

drowned man 2

But be warned; if you plan to follow a character to wherever they’re going next, stick to them like glue.  Don’t stop to look in other rooms or look back, because in the sea of masked audience, you will almost certainly lose them (if you’re lucky, you’ll find them again later – probably soaking wet or covered in mud/blood or in a totally different costume).  Equally, once you’ve  found a storyline (either inside the studio or out in the trailer park), stick with that too.  Wandering off into the other world will only introduce you to a bunch of unrelated characters – I must’ve lost a good 15 minutes just finding out what was up on the top floor and then unable to find my way back to the staircase – time I wish I’d spent following the characters I was just starting to get to grips with.

It has taken me about 2 days to get my head around everything I’ve seen (and didn’t see).  Speaking to friends who’ve been, it’s almost impossible to compare notes as the chances of you having been in the same room at the equivilent time to them, watching the same scene are virtually nil (“Did you see this bit?”, “No… did you see the bit where….?”, “Nope.  We’re you in the room when they…?”, “Errrr…no.”) although 3 of us have managed to see the same dance sequence in the studio ballroom.  I can’t help but think that this is a ploy to get me to go back and see it again.  I’m already looking at tickets for November.

The Drowned Man is at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, Paddington, London, W2 1DJ and is currently booking until 30th December 2013.  http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable

PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your journey.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.