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Theatre review Dangerous bedroom reverie

WILL STONE is left wanting more by an immersive show that is within reach of greatness but doesn't quite grasp it

Viola’s Room
The Carriageworks, Woolwich


PUNCHDRUNK, the vanguard of immersive theatre, has made the giant Carriageworks — two former arsenal buildings in Woolwich — their headquarters since launching their last big work, The Burnt City, there in 2022.

The wildly ambitious and atmospheric production of The Burnt City, themed around the fall of Troy, saw punters donning masks as they followed any actors they chose around the cavernous site.

Breathtaking in its scale and execution, those prone to FOMO were nevertheless likely to leave feeling like they had missed something better going on or a key narrative thread in the storyline.

These drawbacks don’t apply in Viola’s Room, a Punchdrunk mini-production. There are no actors to follow to distant nooks and crannies. Masks are done away with and replaced by headphone sets through which the dulcet tones of Helena Bonham Carter guide six intrepid travellers at a time on a fairytale ghost story through a one-way route set. 

So the sense of adventure of being given free rein to explore wherever you please has been replaced with a more linear narrative, ghost train-like experience. Yet that’s not to diminish the dreamy and surreal quality that Punchdrunk seems so effortlessly skilled at achieving.

We begin in Viola’s bedroom, bedecked out in ’90s teen paraphernalia — although the fairytale itself is based on Barry Pain’s gothic horror story The Moon Slave from 1901 — with posters on the wall and The Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos and Massive Attack providing the soundtrack to the narrative. 

It’s so lifelike that it reminds one of the many realistic set designs in rooms for the celebrated interactive theatre performance You Me Bum Bum Train, and even more so when we’re led to crawl through a tunnel in a little circus tent in the corner of the bedroom that takes us to the next space.

There are a number of wow moments like this in Punchdrunk founder Felix Barrett’s conceived, directed and designed production. A gothic chapel, an abandoned banquet hall and an imposing tree all spring to mind.

Yet there’s something lacking. A sense of an idea that is within reach of greatness but doesn’t quite grasp it; a dress rehearsal for something grander down the line. Perhaps it’s the all too brief 45 minute run-time or that the somewhat nebulous fairytale is not as compelling as it could be. 

Whatever its merits or demerits, there’s still nothing quite like it in theatre today.

Viola's Room runs until August 18,


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