Tag Archives: immersive theatre

In defence of immersive theatre

I’m back. That was a much-longer-than-intended-unplanned hiatus. Apologies. (I’ll bore you with the reasons if you so wish, but let’s be succinct and say “life” happened, and I was a bit busy. Mostly with theatre-related stuff, but not enough intervening time to write about any of it).

The big theatre news of last week was the announcement of a new Punchdrunk show! And yes of course I’m excited at that prospect. But the internet saw this, and lots of people in the know were very unhappy, and other people saw the kerfuffle and decided that they too should be outraged by what little they knew about the show, even though tickets haven’t gone on sale yet and no one has actually seen it. A bit like when Jerry Springer: The Opera found its way into the Daily Mail, and lots of people who never knew about it before were MORTALLY OFFENDED at the FOUR THOUSAND SWEAR WORDS in the score, and some of them may have died from the ensuing aneurysm from so much blood-boiling FURY.

So, why has this made some people so grumpy? It mostly comes down to Punchdrunk being victims of their own success. Having been amongst the early pioneers of immersive theatre, they certainly lead the field in their particular variety. They’ve had generous grants from the Arts Council (sometimes at the expense of other companies) which have helped enable them to stage shows on an epic scale with beyond-your-wildest-dreams production values, select some of the finest performers from across the globe, and present it in such a way that it develops a cult following, and keeps audiences coming back for more. Any morsel from them is surrounded by immense hype and speculation… but also the accusation of being too exclusive.

They have the perfect storm on their hands:

  • Tickets only available to those who enter a ballot
  • Only two audience per show slot
  • The limited number of performances
  • The necessity to buy tickets in pairs
  • A fixed £55 price point
  • An estimated 6 hour running time
  • The requirement to be physically able to stand/walk/(run?) for the duration of the show
  • The means (by contactless card or Oyster) to travel by London public transport
  • The preclusion of anyone pregnant, or who has issues with confined spaces or stressful situations

Quite understandably, some are annoyed by this – both individual elements, and the combinations thereof. That it reserves the Punchdrunk experience for those who are able-bodied and financially comfortable, rather than working to make the arts more accessible. For those who are interested in this kind of theatre, this will be THE hot ticket of 2017. But for another fiercely-debated immersive experience, You Me Bum Bum Train (which sends audience one at a time through a labyrinth of rooms and situations they may never encounter in their ordinary life) internet queues for the £49 tickets reached into quintuple figures within minutes of going on sale, and it wasn’t long before some were appearing on ticket re-sale sites for more than 10 times their face value. I can only presume a ticket ballot is to limit this as much as possible.

As for the rest on the list, Punchdrunk make an art out of combining cinematic spectacle with powerful intimacy, and serve it up with a generous helping of unsettling tension about what might lurk down the end of that gloomy corridor, and the lingering eye contact which says “follow me, I want to show you something“. In order to achieve this, sometimes they need big spaces for audiences to explore, and sometimes small numbers of people (at times it’s just you, a single member of the audience and one actor. In a small room. Or a cupboard). It’s not for everyone – by which I mean that many people have said “oh God, I can’t think of anything worse!“, but equally, that level of close-proximity intensity is hard to come by in row D of the upper circle.

The Drowned Man

Punchdrunk – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Photo by Julian Abrams

The crux of many arguments seems to be: “these things combined make it very difficult for most people to experience this kind of work, and that isn’t fair.” Be it access to tickets, physical/mental well-being, finance, stamina, or any other reason, creativity comes at a price: particularly when you take performance out of a traditional theatre building, and audience out of a numbered seat. But Punchdrunk are not the only ones to employ any of these techniques – there’s a huge number of companies producing work which makes varying demands of its audience. I don’t believe any artistic work begins with the foundation of “how can we make it really difficult for people to experience this?” More likely, quite the opposite.

Traditional theatre (proscenium arch, numbered seats) is guilty of many of these perceived crimes too: it’s not uncommon for top price tickets in the stalls/dress circle to command prices in triple figures, particularly with a big name in the cast. Shows such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton are massively in demand, with entire batches of tickets selling out over a year in advance. Angels In America (albeit with a seated audience) had a total running time of over 7 hours. The most affordable seats are typically in the Upper Circle or Balcony, which can necessitate climbing a few flights of stairs, and some tiers are raked so steeply that they can induce nausea and dizziness in anyone with a fear of heights. Many theatres sell “restricted view” and “limited legroom” seats, which pose problem for people with back, hip and knee issues, so standing may be preferable. Theatres from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Donmar to the Royal Court offer standing tickets. Ghost Stories came with a necessary content warning – at one point I was sat wondering who was screaming (until I realised it was me).

Perhaps I’m lucky in that I’m an able-bodied adult, with a bit of disposable income, in commuting distance of London. Many aren’t, and it’s vital that as much of the arts as possible is made accessible to these people as well. We’ve seen an increase in recent years in accessible performances, featuring audio-description, StageText, BSL interpreters, relaxed performances with adjusted lighting/sound etc. Step-free access is improving (although still an issue in many older theatres), and new-build venues can meet far more of these requirements while still offering versatility in terms of staging. But how the hell do you offer these choices in an unconventional setting without compromising the content of a show? (A rhetorical question, since I don’t know – but many companies do offer accessible performances, and have clearly thought about ways to accommodate different requirements).

So yes, there are shows which require an audience to follow/keep up with roaming performers. Mostly this will be at a walking pace, but I have raced up 5 flights of stairs in Sleep No More in hot pursuit of Macduff. I’ve crawled through tunnels in The Good Neighbour. I’ve dived into tiny cupboards and curled up under tables during Heist, hoping that the marauding guards can’t hear my heart thundering in my chest. I’ve tottered around Covent Garden’s cobbles with various panto characters in Once Upon A Christmas (while wearing hi-vis and looking like a lipstick-Braveheart). I’ve climbed up onto the roof of Theatre Delicatessen to watch stunning aerial acrobats in the fading daylight during Shelter Me. I’ve traipsed around on gravel for 3 hours for a mediocre promenade version of Romeo & Juliet (not all “immersive” shows are good). Some require excellent mobility and some can only take small numbers of audience at a time. Do we tell these companies too that they are excluding too many people?

shelter me

Circumference Shelter Me at Theatre Delicatessen

But for each of these, there are still shows which fit under the immersive umbrella, but don’t require an Olympic level of fitness. Several companies are creating exceptional multi-sensory work with cutting edge technology and live effects. Yet those too present their own access challenges. Ring, a binaural piece by Fuel takes place in complete darkness wearing headphones (and I mean complete darkness – your eyes never adjust to the blackout). On one hand you’re seated and have no need for vision… but it’s no good if you’re deaf/hard of hearing, and the psychological effects of the sound combined with the hour-long blackout are very intense (they brief you beforehand on what to do if you can’t handle it and need to get out: hand in the air, say “help” repeatedly, and someone with night vision goggles will come and find you). In a sold out performance of 100, I counted 5 seats that were empty at the end when the lights came up. Yet as an experience, I was completely transported into that narrative – the essence of really good theatre.

Every Punchdrunk fan is waiting for their next large-scale show, where they take up residence in a building (usually for a year or so), with exploration opportunities aplenty. Meanwhile they’ve been working on smaller scale projects, including their 2015 collaboration with Absolut, Silverpoint – but not having an iPhone meant I missed out on this. But in addition to their site-specific performance work, Punchdrunk have a well-established enrichment programme, sharing their magical worlds with everyone from primary school children to adults with dementia. The Lost Lending Library has been journeying around London schools for a number of years, arriving without warning (for the kids at least), nourishing imaginations and nurturing reading and writing skills for a few weeks, then disappearing without a trace. Given that I’m not at primary school, I’ve missed out on this too. Do I resent that? Not in the slightest.

So: do we fight to make everything accessible for everyone? Accessibility is improving, but still has a long way to go. Or do we accept that part of what makes theatre so special is its diversity and spectacle, which as a consequence, might not be suited to everyone? Do we tell lighting designers they can’t use strobes, or advise people at the ticket-purchase stage that they’ll feature in the production? Do we tell actors they’ll just have to do more performances to accommodate everyone who wants to see a small-but-in-demand show? Do we tell producers to scrimp on the quality to make the tickets a bit more affordable? Do we tell writers to make a show that’s a bit nicer or easier, because we find it all just a bit too offensive, scary, weird, unpleasant, difficult, controversial? Or do we celebrate the smorgasbord of creativity in all its messy, impractical, thought-provoking, magnificent glory and accept that we’re lucky that any of it gets made at all?

Let theatre be theatre, however it may manifest itself, for its own sake.

Secret Theatre – Secret Studio Lab

A secret location, a closely-guarded plot line and the need for sensible shoes – music to the ears of any immersive theatre fan. Secret Studio Lab have a few productions under their belt on both sides of the Atlantic, and the latest Secret Theatre promises a visit to a city island to immerse yourself in their summer tragedy of love. But the biggest tragedy of all is that this production massively under-delivers on several aspects vital to immersive theatre.

I’m not sure what came first: the choice of play, or the location – but neither really compliments the other. The key to successful site-specific work is to create something which nestles perfectly in its setting – to make it feel as if the piece were written just for that space. So a marketing suite for the swanky new blocks of flats being built on City Island, surrounded by a moat of gravel, and desolate concrete piles with steel girders protruding through the ground isn’t exactly an obvious choice for the text in question, even if the story is set in East London. If you are going to stage the work on an island, there are other more fitting texts in this playwright’s repertoire.


My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre. To read the review in full, please click here.

Countdown to Edinburgh Fringe

I’ve never been to Edinburgh Fringe before. (I know, right?) I haven’t been deliberately avoiding it, it’s just been a lack of the fates aligning for me to have enough annual leave to go away for a week in August.

So I have my accommodation and trains booked. I have spent weeks drowning in spreadsheets and maps, meticulously planning how best to pack in everything I want to see, both cost effectively and efficiently so that I’m sticking to venues in the same locale rather than madly criss-crossing the city. This is all good in principle, but I do have a talent for cutting it fine and being easily distracted, so my military precision may all count for nothing.

Last night I begrudgingly accepted that with 8 shows all starting around 2 o’clock, and only 6 days in which to see them, I’d have to let a few things slip. It’s heartbreaking, because so much sounds so promising. The more you look, the more you find. So unless Professor McGonagall can lend me a Time-Turner for the week, I’m going to have to deal with a lot of FOMO (Speaking of which, I should probably find time to go and have a cup of tea in the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter).

But I’ve found some real gems which I’m hoping will be good. Most of my picks seem to fall into the following categories:

  • Comedy
  • Circus
  • Friends’ shows
  • Shakespeare-based
  • Confined spaces/darkness
  • “Please wear sensible shoes”

Some shows fit into more than one category – although I’m yet to find a comedy Macbeth performed to one audience member at a time in a series of dark cupboards in Edinburgh Castle and told through the medium of circus – if someone wants to make that, I promise I will come and see it. Admittedly I dreamt a week ago that I went to see Thunderbirds on Ice which also had audience participation.

So I have a hugely diverse bunch of shows to see: improvised lost Jane Austen titles, 1940’s Hitchock-inspired circus, a Shakespeare where the audience play the other characters, a series of conversations in the back of 3 cars, a choose-your-own-adventure where the audience determine the order of the scenes, frank explorations of mental health, my friend’s older brother trying to transmute base metals into gold, Game of Thrones spin-offs, and a steampunk scavenger hunt. It will be nothing if not eventful. I am quite concerned that I will be torn between the need for sleep and the need to see more shows.

So here are my picks, all beautifully listed for you with links (some of these I’ve managed to see in London previews):


Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel
Fake It ’til You Make It
John Robertson – The Dark Room: Symphony of a Floating Head
Sooz Kempner – Character Activist
Thrones! The Musical
Will Seaward Has a Really Good Go at Alchemy
Will Seaward’s Spooky Midnight Ghost Stories II
Winter is Coming. Again.

Circus/Physical Theatre

Blind Man’s Song
Close Up
Ockham’s Razor: Arc and Every Action…


Hell Hath No Fury
Mrs Shakespeare
Richard III
Titus Andronicus: An All-Female Production
To She or Not to She

Immersive/Confined Spaces/Darkness/Sensible Shoes

Awakening, Sweet and Sour Sensory Composition
Comfort Slaves
Father Time
Helpless Doorknobs
Jethro Compton presents Sirenia
Tate Postmodern
This Time Tomorrow
We This Way


Down & Out in Paris and London
I, Elizabeth
Much Further Out Than You Thought
My Beautiful Black Dog
The Eulogy of Toby Peach
We Can Make You Happy
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

New Atlantis – The Crystal

In the last year or so, I’ve noticed a growing trend of theatre looking towards the future – imaginings of the world yet to come.  Not the Back To The Future world of hoverboards and self-tying shoelaces, but very plausible scenarios.  A greater reliance on technology, more frequent outbreaks of civil unrest, a strain placed upon resources.  All of these things are present in the brave new world of New Atlantis, a pertinent piece as we approach the General Election in May.

new atlantis

They couldn’t have picked a better building than The Crystal in Royal Victoria, East London (although if you’re not familiar with the area, I’d recommend allowing a little extra time to get there) – all futuristic space-agey glass, vast airy high ceilings and loaded with sustainable engineering – perfect headquarters for the organisation that replaces the failed United Nations in 2036.  But in 2050, the Secretary General calls a meeting to announce that she no longer has the energy to fulfil her duties and must step down; it is now down to us as ‘Agents’ to vote for a new leader from 3 possible canditates.  A little bit King Lear with added “press the red button now” features.  All the while, there is the threat of destabilisation from the ominously named Generation Alpha.

We are introduced to the gravity of the situation through a large screen broadcast: Secretary General Dr. Bryony Weller (Tricia Kelly) speaks with the sort of oratory skill frequently seen in world leaders, yet with a quiet vulnerability.  Her age is rather poignant: hinting to the youngish audience that this will be us in 40 years time, approaching old age and regretting not doing more about climate change when we could still make a tangible difference.  We are encouraged to explore the building for an hour and educate ourselves on the various policies of each candidate by engaging with characters and real scientists.  There are some nice bits of science-fiction styling to the actors’ costumes, whereas the scientists are easily identifiable by their boiler suits.

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – you can read the review in full here.

New Atlantis is on until 25th January 2015 at The Crystal, Royal Victoria Dock, London E16 1GB.   For tickets and more information, go to http://www.enlightenmentcafe.co.uk/ 

My picks for 2015

With 2015 only days away, I’ve already got my eye on several shows coming up in 2015:

The Railway Children at King’s Cross Station
16th December 2014 to 6th September 2015
Already in preview at its new specially built home in King’s Cross, I first saw this stage adaptation of E. Nesbit’s famous tale when it was at Waterloo’s old Eurostar terminal.  If the words “My Daddy! Oh my Daddy!” cause you to have something in your eye all of a sudden, you should definitely make time to see the wonderful staging of this enchanting family show.

The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Studios
16th January 2015 to 11th April 2015
James McAvoy returns to the stage as Jack, “a possible paranoid schizophrenic with a Messiah complex, who inherits the title of the 14th Earl of Gurney after his father passes away in a bizarre accident. Singularly unsuited to a life in the upper echelons of elite society, Jack finds himself at the centre of a ruthless power struggle as his scheming family strives to uphold their reputation.” 

The Nether at The Duke of York’s Theatre
30th January 2015 to 25th April 2015
A very well-earned transfer of this exceptional play from its stint at The Royal Court earlier in 2014 – the vast majority of the original cast will be reprising their roles.  Set in the unspecified near future, the script tackles the uneasy subject of how to deal with paedophilia.  It presents the audience with a very real dilemma – yet it never tells you how you should feel about it.  You decide that for yourself.  I will definitely be going back for a second viewing.

The King’s Speech – UK Tour
5th February 2015 to 8th June 2015
This is the stage adaptation of the film which won more awards than you could shake a sceptre at. It had an outing on the West End a few years ago, but it was perhaps timed a little too close to the DVD release for it to fly. This production is starting in Chichester and touring the country from there, with Jason Donovan playing Aussie speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Perhaps now the time is right for this show to return to the stage.

Jason Donovan King's Speech

A View From The Bridge at the Wyndham’s Theatre
10th February 2015 to 11th April 2015
A recommendation from a fellow theatre blogger, Jake Orr.  In his words: “The most breathtaking synergy between direction, design and text I’ve seen in theatre… …Seriously, if you’ve not seen the show it is transferring to the West End in 2015, book now and hold your breathe at the end, you won’t have a choice but to.”  I’m prepared to take it on good faith that it’ll be every bit as amazing as described!

The Producers – UK Tour
6th March 2015 to 11th July 2015
Much as I hate to be swayed by a celebrity cast, I do love Ross Noble (he joins the cast from 18th May). A musical about making the worst musical ever – with songs like Springtime For Hitler is my kinda show.

Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre
28th March 2015 to 25th July 2015
Just about all of my more musically-inclined theatre blogging friends have been raving about this ever since they saw it at the Chichester Festival Theatre.  Again, I’m willing to believe them that this is going to be good.


The Audience at the Apollo Theatre
21st April 2015 to 25th July 2015
I saw the cinema screening of The Audience starring Helen Mirren – a fantastic play based on the imagined conversations between Her Maj and the Prime Minister du jour.  All 12 of them.  Kristin Scott Thomas takes to the stage in a play which is a fascinating insight into the woman who has the right “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn”.  For those who would happily do away with the monarchy, this play might persuade you that there’s a lot to be said for one piece of continuity that holds fast from one government to the next.

Shakespeare’s Globe New Season
From 23rd April 2015
In a bid to repair the damage done by my English teachers at secondary school and sixth form college (and University, to be honest), I’m slowly working my way through seeing lots of plays at Shakespeare’s Globe in the hope that they’ll be less boring on stage than they were in the classroom.  The Merchant of Venice was the first play I saw when the Globe opened (I was studying it for GCSE, which kind of ruined it) and I’m also looking forward to Measure For Measure, which has some familiar characters like Falstaff, so I’m hoping it’ll be funny rather than the painfully dull chore that it was for A-Level.

You Me Bum Bum Train
Dates to be confirmed
All aboard! YMBBT – one of the greatest immersive theatre companies in existence – have set the wheels in motion for a 2015 show. It’s all very secretive, but reportedly, audience members are sent through one by one into a series of situations which you probably wouldn’t encounter in your everyday life. From driving a JCB digger to conducting an orchestra to leading a dawn raid with armed police, you become the star of the show. What they have lined up this time is a closely guarded secret and the less you know, the better.  Apparently.

Of course there’s loads I want to see – the full list is here.

Top 10 Theatre Shows of 2014

You’re asking me to pick just 10?

I’ve basically binged on theatre this year, totting up over 50 different shows, some with multiple visits. Thank goodness reviewing has permitted me to see a few shows for free (Thank you to Bargain Theatre and #LDNTheatreBloggers for letting me see shows with you/on your behalf and lessening the impact on my bank balance). The vast majority of what I’ve seen this year has been of a really high standard, which has made it hard to choose. I should point out that the ranking on the first few is purely arbitrary – they’ve made it into my top 10 ahead of 3 or 4 other shows that I really really liked.

10. 1984 – Playhouse Theatre
Oh God, this was harrowing. I can’t say it was an enjoyable play to watch, but as a piece of theatre, it was incredible. Every bit as visceral, unnerving and horrifying as I expected it to be. For theatre that moves you to feel something, it doesn’t get much better than this.

9. Ring – Battersea Arts Centre
This was probably the best piece of audio theatre that I’ve experienced this year. This show proves just how heightened your sense of hearing becomes when you’re sitting in complete darkness (and I really do mean complete darkness). It plays tricks with your mind and your perception of the space around you. Definitely worth “seeing” again.

8. Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre
Just the right balance between jazz hands and acerbic wit, Forbidden Broadway packs in showtune after showtune, each with new lyrics. If you’d seen the shows in question, it was hilarious – even if you hadn’t, the humour was well pitched for the uninitiated.

7. Good People – Noel Coward Theatre
From the very beginning, Imelda Staunton gave one of the greatest performances on the West End stage. She machine-gunned through her desperate pleas to her boss, barely stopping to draw breath. She was fragile, unlikeable at times, yet funny and sweet. A very complex character, with faults and foibles.

6. The Knight of the Burning Pestle – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Pure Jacobean silliness and my first visit to the breathtakingly beautiful candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. This was a well observed satire about badly behaved audiences, with a good dose of slapstick thrown in. A play outside of a play filled with mirth and mayhem.

5. The Nether – Royal Court
Probably one of the best “this could really happen” plays I’ve seen in recent years. The uncomfortable dilemma of how to deal with paedophiles, brilliantly written and cleverly staged (another incredible set by Es Devlin) – yet it never told you what to think or how to feel. I was stunned into silence for 5 minutes after. A real thinking play.

4. Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare’s Globe
Gloriously gory and wickedly funny, I first saw Lucy Bailey’s production of Titus Andronicus 8 years ago and was thrilled at the prospect of a revival. It didn’t disappoint – the ever accelerating cycle of revenge and politics played out in a mêlée of tit-for-tat violence and careful manoeuvres, all the while, making us laugh at some pretty chilling stuff.

3. The Play That Goes Wrong – Duchess Theatre
A sheer comic delight – everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Things fell to pieces, stuff went missing, people couldn’t get on (or off) the stage… but meanwhile, the cast did everything they could to downplay – and adapt to – the chaos unfolding around them, and valiantly carried on with the show. A fresh take on the old art of coarse acting.

2. Let The Right One In – Apollo Theatre
This was more than just another teen vampire love story – the staging was exceptional. As a portrayal of the horror genre, they made good use of suspense – there was a tortuous wait for the impending ‘jump’. There was a real elegance to the scene changes, making the whole thing completely seamless.

1. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable by Punchdrunk
Could it really be anything else?  The show that changed my life and redefined everything I know about theatre? From the multi-layered stories to the performance logistics of 32 actors each having to be in the right place at the right time. From the meticulous detail in the set to the glorious choreography, to the sheer inter-connectedness of everything, I take my hat off to everyone involved. I still miss this show, but I’m just thankful that I had the chance to go as many times as I did.

Possibly the best Christmas present I could ask for (short of them reopening Temple Studios), they’ve released footage of the final finale.  I am in that crowd somewhere, on the verge of tears.

Here’s to another year of fantastic theatre!

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.

Macbeth – RIFT

Having thrown myself into this immersive theatre lark recently and as quite a fan of Shakespeare, the idea of an overnight Macbeth in a ‘secret London location’ was irresistible.  It was a little ambiguous as to whether the actors would be performing throughout the night with the whole play stretched over 12 hours or it was just going to be a late finish, but given that a ticket included sleeping arrangements (Hard – bring your own sleeping bag, Soft – you get a campbed, Deluxe – you get a bed), there was only one way to find out.

In anticipation that some of you have bought tickets and are waiting for your performance date, here are some important tips for you:

  • Wear comfortable shoes – you’ll be wandering about a lot.
  • Take a few warm layers with you – while the whole thing takes place inside the building in the height of summer, when the windows or balcony doors are open (or you are out on the balcony), it gets a bit nippy once it’s got dark.
  • Get there before your start time – there’s a few things to do before it actually starts (i.e. fill in a medical form).
  • Have something to eat before you go – there is a small vegan meal included, but it’s served quite late in the evening and you’ll need sustenance for all that wandering about.
  • Hard and Soft have changes to the sleeping arrangements (a bit of an upgrade!) – check your email.

Here endeth the tips.  The below contains spoilers.

On arrival at Balfron Tower, I went through the security check point of Borduria where I handed over my phone, filled in a medical form and almost had time to exchange money for Bordurian currency (was running late due to getting very lost at Stratford International trying to find the right DLR platform).  We were then escorted by Uri, Borduria’s finest security guard to enter the Rift between fact and fiction and step from daylight into a very dark underground car park….

Where I was promptly terrified by a witch.  I don’t know where she came from, but she appeared next to me very suddenly, before my eyes had had a chance to adjust to the dark.  I carried on walking ahead, following the rest of the people in my group, only to look round to my side and find the witch still walking alongside me as the other two appeared out of the gloom.  We gathered around an oil drum with a fire lit in the top for the opening scene.  Macbeth appeared along with a few accomplices, their military styling perfectly at home in the brutalist architecture.  As we walked along, we were treated to one of Macbeth’s cocky, self-assured soliloquies with knowing looks.  A strong start.

We were shepherded round to the entrance where our guide, Ivana was waiting.  We were ushered into a lift where there began a lot of deadpan instructions (pure comedy) as we rose up to the higher floors.  I’ve often wondered if immersive theatre could ever tackle comedy and it seems that it can, I just wasn’t sure if Macbeth was necessarily the right vehicle for it.  We were then taken up to a bar where we could buy drinks with Bordurian currency (luckily soft drinks were free).

As the evening progressed, we were ushered into various rooms, sometimes with other groups, so that we were taken to scenes, or scenes were brought to us.  We soon worked out that the flat we were taken to on repeated occasions was the flat we’d be staying in for the night.  While the scenes were good, there were often long gaps in between – I can only presume the actors had to do the same scene a few times over in various flats before the show could move on to the next bit.  These gaps were often covered with TV reports of ‘Birnam wood is on the move’ from man on the scene, Uri (We love Uri!  He should have his own show) or something from our guide, but usually some sort of comedy which frequently had us helpless with laughter.

But then suddenly we’d be jolted back to drama as Macbeth would storm into the room for an argument with his wife as they try to cover their tracks or an uneasy stand-off with Macduff.  Then they’d be out again and we’d either sit and wait or be ushered off to another room.  There was a frequent loss of impetus as the links between scenes are a long way from seamless.  This is where the logistics of promenade theatre become incredibly exposed.  As an audience, we were never quite sure when it had actually finished – we’d all settled down for drinks and a chat when a scene was brought to us – after this we were moved onto another bar.  After a few minutes, exhaustion kicked in and it was very much time to go to bed (a bunkbed rather than a campbed was much appreciated!)

But as I was there on opening night (presumably their first time with an audience that isn’t made up of their family and friends for dry runs), I am prepared to be forgiving.  They have set themselves an enormous task and are so close to pulling it off.  There are many things to like about this production: The acting I saw was brilliant and the guides remained in character at all times, even when things seemed to be going slightly awry.  There were also some lovely little touches to the set dressing such as a wedding photo of the Macbeths and the bloody bed in Duncan’s flat.

Macbeth is the perfect production for the building and comedy is a brilliant way to manage the gaps between scenes – I’m just not sure that the two things belonged together in the same show.  But if RIFT want to try their hand at a through-and-through comedy in promenade (with Uri, of course), I will absolutely be buying a ticket.

Heist Live – Marylebone Gardens (2nd helpings)

As you could probably tell from my last visit, I loved Heist Live – I was desperate to go back for more.  But with tickets sold out on the February/March run, I’d accepted that it’d just be a one off.  The mailing list had gone quiet and I’d already run through my head the question of: “would it even work as well a 2nd time around given how much I already know?”.  I just happened to be checking their twitter feed when I spotted a message stating that tickets would be on sale the following day.  How could I possibly turn it down?  The link came through from the mailing list and I immediately messaged a few friends who’d expressed an interest – I waited patiently for them to pick a date and time… but I could see the alarming pace at which nights were selling out (in the vain hope that some had been blocked off to be sold in a later batch – they weren’t).  With only a handful of nights with ‘1 ticket available’, I couldn’t risk letting it slip past.  Sorry friends!  As it turned out, they had sold the whole lot – in an hour.  I haven’t had this level of panic since trying to get a weekend ticket for Reading Festival in years gone by.

So as usual, I presented myself to the reception: “Ahh, Miss Bishop, a repeat offender…” and waited for my team to show up, a pair and a group of 5.  Having settled back into One-Step’s bar, myself, Fresh Prince and Molotov started chatting while the others trickled in.  Something told me that they’d been drinking.  As it turned out, they’d been drinking for 3 hours.  Any fears I had for this turning out exactly the same as last time (with 6 guys who were very strategic, organised and sober) were soon allayed – just not quite in the way I’d imagined.  This was going to be like herding cats.  Drunk cats.  Early Doors, Tourettes, Tiddlywink, The Molehill and Finelines did very little to prove me wrong.  Ahh well, at least it was going to be different.

Having broken into the neighbouring building, I knew there were a few keys things for us to find – but with past experience ringing in my ears, there was one crucial item missing.  Had we just not found it or was it elsewhere in the building?  Were we going to have to do the whole thing without it?  The rug had been pulled from under my feet and I was glad.  The makers have evidently taken returners into account and changed enough things to stop you from relying on past experience and knowing where things are.  All but for a bit of building layout knowledge, I was firmly back at square one – with the added bonus of tipsy accomplices.  Stealth was not one of our strong points – we blundered out into the corridor, straight into one of the roaming security guards.  Thankfully with just one pair of hands, he only managed to detain one or two people.

But with a team in such disarray (I think we got down to 3 of us at one point, while the others were all in various stages of arrest, lost and unsanctioned exploring), I did at least get to do a bit more hiding and running around.  One mini-team managed to bring a security guard right into our hiding place, causing him to bundle out every single person except for me – I’d managed to hide under a table out of sight and just stayed still and quiet.  I was probably left by myself for a minute.  I wasn’t sure if any of them would be back and whether to try to do it alone.  But a few reappeared and they seemed to finally have grasped the ‘not getting caught’ aspect (and sobered up a bit).  The organisation started to kick in.

When I was hoping for more action than last time, I hadn’t quite bargained on it being me who’d both break into the locked room AND steal the item in question – that was a huge adrenaline rush.  Pretty impressive given that last time I’d just stared at CCTV screens and not even set foot on the floor where that item was, so this floor was as new to me as it was to everyone else.  We’d largely pulled together by this point, but something went wrong towards the end, so we ultimately ended up with the same outcome as I had last time.

All in all, still a huge amount of fun.  I was also lucky enough to sit and chat to the directors in the bar after – a fascinating insight into what they’re trying to achieve in a niche of theatre which is still finding its own rules.  Would I go back for a 3rd time?  Definitely.  So if it comes around again, be ready to pick a date at a moment’s notice.  And please be sober…

Heist Live is on until Saturday 31st May 2014 at Marylebone Gardens, 35 Marylebone High Street, London, W1U 4QA.  This event is now sold out but a small number of returns may be available on certain dates.  All participants must be 18 or over.  For tickets and more information go to http://heistlive.com/