Tag Archives: National Theatre

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.

Theatre on Screen

Earlier this year, Premium tickets to see Dame Helen Mirren in ‘The Audience’ in the West End were the eye-watering price of £126.00.  Yes – One Hundred and Twenty Six Pounds.  EACH.  Now I love the theatre and I think Mirren is an incredible actress, but even their cheaper tickets were steeply priced.  Yet I managed to see this wonderful play for a mere £10 with a very good view of the stage – welcome to the world of National Theatre Live which allows you to see selected West End plays for the price of a cinema ticket.

NTLive screenings may lose a little of the atmosphere of being in a theatre, but they make up for it enormously with a mix of camera angles from around the auditorium – even birds-eye-view shots from directly above the stage – and close ups of the actors faces at poignant moments.  You even get an interval (and the opportunity to eat ludicrously overpriced ice cream).  ‘The Audience’ may have finished its screenings for the time being, but from 31st October is ‘Frankenstein’ by Nick Dear which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller who jointly won the Olivier Award for Best Actor in 2012 after their critically acclaimed performances where the two of them alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature.


I am already booked to see this at my local cinema in Surrey, but screenings are also showing at selected cinemas nationwide and even internationally.  Upcoming shows include ‘War Horse’, famous for its breathtaking work by the Handspring Puppet Company.  For further details of upcoming screenings and cinemas, go to http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Another useful resource is Shakespeare on Screen, live recordings of plays from Shakespeare’s Globe – over the summer I took great pleasure in going to the cinema (Vue at Purley Way, Croydon – again £10 for a cinema ticket) to see Henry V starring Jamie Parker and Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry, both of which I’d seen in 2012, both stunningly good productions.  While sitting in a dark cinema will never quite match standing in the Groundling pit at the Globe, it’s still cheaper than purchasing the DVDs which are currently retailing at £19.99 from the Globe Shop.  I’m not a skinflint, honest.  Here’s a tidbit from Henry V:

But it’s still possible to go cheaper.  Digital Theatre.  For just £3.99 (yes, three pounds and ninety-nine pence) you can get a 48-hour rental of various shows which have appeared in London’s West End and further afield – I’ve even found a handful of shows available for as little as £2.99!  Sign up for a free account at http://www.digitaltheatre.com/ and rented plays will stay in your online library for 30 days – you then have 48 hours from the time you first hit ‘Play’ in which to watch it.  Prefer something more permanent?  You can buy a play for £8.99 (or £10.99 in HD) and it’s yours to keep and watch offline at your leisure.  There’s a great deal of variety on there – productions from Shakespeare’s Globe, operas, ballets, musicals and plays.

Think of the benefits! no need to wolf down dinner at a chain restaurant in order to get to the theatre on time, no worrying about making the train for the long commute home – you don’t even need to be in London in the first place.  If you have children, you don’t have to mess about getting a babysitter – OK so we can’t promise you an uninterupted evening of drama or comedy, but you can hit the pause button, just as with anything on Catch Up or DVD.  You could watch your download morning, noon or night and quite honestly, if you’ve got a laptop, why not watch it in bed?

So it was on Saturday morning (still in pyjamas and armed with a mountain of toast) that I sat down at my PC to watch ‘Lovesong’, a one-act play by Abi Morgan (most famous for writing BBC’s The Hour and the screenplay for The Iron Lady – she was the only Brit to win anything at this year’s Emmy Awards) produced by Frantic Assembly, a theatre company I briefly studied at university.  This play intertwines a couple in their twenties with the same man and woman a lifetime later.  Their past and present selves collide in this haunting and beautiful tale of togetherness.”  A very moving piece of theatre which cleverly intersperses snippets of contemporary dance with dialogue, giving an honest portrayal of what it is to grow old together.  This clip should give you a good idea of the filming quality you can expect:

Once again this has all the advantages of the view from the best seats, the many camera angles and close ups – whilst being able to watch this on your own terms, in your own home – with your own reasonably priced ice cream.

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.

The Pitmen Painters – Lee Hall (Duchess Theatre)


It has to be said that The Pitmen Painters is something of an art and history lesson rolled into one.  Written by Lee Hall – most famous for writing the movie Billy Elliot and the subsequent West End musical – The Pitmen Painters is based on the true story of the miners who hired a professor to teach them art appreciation and quickly abandoned theory in favour of practise, painting the life that they knew.  Although the original collective numbered more than 30 men, that has been scaled down to 5 distinct personalities for theatrical purposes.

Set in Ashington in the north of England in 1934, life is tough, work is scarce and money is tight – and yet this play opens with great humour and warmth as the men bicker amongst themselves about what art is, the hidden meanings in paintings, and the rules by which they must abide if the class is to take place at all.

Led by the bureaucratic George (Joe Caffrey) who had quite a remarkable ability to turn his face almost purple with each vitriolic rant about anything from the plugging in of a projector to the immorality of accepting money for their paintings, the group consists of Oliver (Trevor Fox), Jimmy (David Whitaker), Harry (Michael Hodgson) and George’s nephew (Brian Lonsdale) and their esteemed teacher, Robert Lyon (Ian Kelly).  The cast is completed by life model Susan Parks (Joy Brook) who seems determined to take her clothes off and art collector Helen Sutherland (Joy Brook) a keen admirer of modern art and raw talent.

The men begin with simple lino cuttings and slowly move on to painting, each developing his own style.  Amongst the pacy lines and hilarious dialogue, there are some very poignant moments, particularly when Oliver (the most talented of the group) struggles to come to terms with his new-found ability and Trevor Fox plays this with great depth and subtlety; he has grown to love painting but does not consider it to be an honest day’s work – he comes from a long line of pitmen and even when he’s offered a weekly wage to paint full-time, he fears leaving behind the only life he has ever known.

I am always in awe of any actor who can multi-task; it is one thing to learn lines, develop a character and follow stage directions – it is quite another to do a chalk/charcoal sketch live on stage that so closely mimics the original it is based on (shown on a screen above the stage), whilst still continuing with a scene of dialogue as though this were the most natural thing in the world.  I was completely spellbound – Ian Kelly, I take my hat off to you.


The Pitmen Painters is at The Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, Aldwych, WC2B 5LA and is currently booking until Saturday, April 14, 2012

Contains some strong language – suitable for ages 10+