Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Theatre review: The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

Immersive theatre company Punchdrunk have acquired an enthusiastic following, so their return to London after an absence of some years was big news. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable was my first experience of them, and it was meant to come some time ago but the preview performance I'd booked for back in June got cancelled due to technical problems. On the plus side this meant I could transfer my ticket to a date further into the run when the company had settled into the complex performance - a real bonus, apparently, as disgruntled voices from the show's previews suggest it took a long time to find its feet. But now that it has it's certainly something hard to forget, a promenade piece that's taken over a huge building near Paddington Station and transformed it into a 1950s Hollywood movie studio and its surroundings.

Roughly speaking, the story is of two parallel love triangles, one happening among the studio executives and stars, the other on the streets of L.A. and its surrounding areas. Both will end tragically, and fiction will mirror reality - and vice versa.

In practice though, and this is strongly encouraged by the company several times as you begin traversing the building, this is about putting together a story that's unique to you, and you're not to feel as if you should stick with the people you came to the show with. The audience wear (rather sinister) masks, which makes them ghost-like observers of the action and means you know anyone without a mask is an actor. It's pretty hot in them, and I did find mine squashed my nose to the extent that it made it harder to breathe, but visibility through them is fine, even if you wear glasses (except when they steam up from the heat.)

The design effort that's gone into this immersive show is fascinating in itself: The top floor is a desert, the first floor a dingy town and the woods and trailer parks around it, the ground floor the studio itself with various sound stages, and the basement its technical store, as well as including one large, mysterious room in particular. (The first door I found to the basement was locked but it's worth persevering, there are ways in and it's exciting to find a new space to explore, just when you think you've seen all there is. Plus the toilets are down there so it's worth finding.)

The attention to detail makes looking round this world interesting in itself but laid over it are the multiple story strands of love affairs with violent ends. Essentially as you traverse the various sets you come upon little snippets of story, mainly presented through dance. There's the odd bit of dialogue but with the soundtrack very loud throughout (my ears were buzzing slightly when I got home) it's clearly not meant to be your main source of information. Instead you can let bits of story wash past you, or follow a cast member as they move to a different location to continue their current strand - crowds of masked people running after an actor become a regular sight, and Christopher and I may or may not have caused injuries as we chased the outrageously hot guy in the waistcoat. Because of his storyline, obviously. (Actually this did result in one of the most interesting facets for me: I've seen a fair bit of immersive theatre by now but getting this close to an intense dance performance between him and one of the women was a new and exciting experience.)

A good place to catch a lot of action seemed to be the "Red Moon Motel" set in the desert section, where I caught a murder scene, a FULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!and the aforementioned waistcoat-clad performer dancing frantically in the sand with his bare chest covered in paint; he then got a female member of the audience into a small tent with him to wash it off. I mean, I was standing right there, but no, he had to pick a woman. Damn your heteronormative assumptions! Actually, one disappointment for me was that, apart from a rather naff moment at the end, I didn't get selected by a performer to listen to any of the one-on-one scenes they occasionally did.

There's also a few rather spectacular fight scenes, all the more impressive when you take the time to realise that they have to be performed and choreographed with an unpredictable promenade audience hanging around them. The scenes are repeated a couple of times to allow more people to catch them, which means you may end up seeing one twice - this can be interesting if you catch a different perspective: Like the scene of a woman being humiliated on stage by a man in drag who dresses her in his outfit; the second time I caught it from a distance, from the perspective of an angry studio exec looking on. Having started not long after 7, by the time the show climaxed in a "wrap party" about 9:45 we were starting to feel as if we'd got as much out of the experience as we were going to and the climax was a welcome change. But if you leave behind any expectations of really following a narrative this is a memorable dance experience with little opportunities to experience something that feels like its yours, or even like you're leaving your mark.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable by Punchdrunk is booking until the 30th of December at temple Studios, Paddington

Running time: Up to 3 hours depending on when you start (a 7pm performance ends at 10pm.)


  1. This is our first Punchdrunk experience, which we went to see yesterday. For the first hour we wandered around confused and aimless, then found the bar and discussed whether to go home or not. We'd noticed the creepy, masked figures following actors so decided to give it another try, find an actor and stick with them for a bit. I'm so glad we did! It's a shame that we only really got going with it half way through, and I wish we'd read more reviews before we went so as to have had a better idea of what to expect, but The Drowned Man was unlike anything I've ever experienced before...exciting, moving, voyeuristic, creepy. We'll probably go to see it again!

    1. I normally like to know as little as possible about a show before going in but it probably helped here having had some idea of what to expect from other people's comments.

      I certainly didn't have the experience others did of sometimes going an hour without seeing anything happen, although I can imagine that on the "town" floor it's easy enough to wind up in some little shop for a long time with nothing going on.

  2. I went to Hollywood man yesterday, and it certainly was quite the experience. I suppose the onus is on you as the audience to make a story of it. After thinking about it, and your review, I am amazed at how much of my own personality has rubbed off and made the story I saw. I happened to follow the male actors for eg, (subconciously!), and realised at the end that I did not follow any of female ones. The theme of duality everywhere (male/female, inside/outside, audience/actors, fiction/reality) meant I only experienced a slice of Temple studios.
    Ultimately I don't think there is "the" story of Temple studios as it were. In fiction a story is the writer's imagination, the writer also makes the choices and you as the audience simply take it for what it is.
    In life the story is about one's own choices, with not much room for imagination and you are responsible for the ending. You work with what you've got.

    Perhaps Temple studios offers a space where fiction and reality blur. Both sides need to put in imagination and make choices for it to form.

    I am going again to follow the female characters, especially at the parties where they meet throughout the loops, and where you can choose whom to follow (or indeed not to follow anyone at all!)

    My experience was so different from yours that I can say there's a fair bit you've missed, and I have as well. I think you should go again, and so will I.