‘The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable’

2013-07-31 17.05.35This was my first experience of a Punchdrunk production, and I’m still not sure if that is the appropriate description of them or me after the experience.

A friend chivvied me into buying the ticket some months ago, when the only information published about the production was its name and that it would be staged in a location within Zone 1 of the London Transport system.   I knew only what I had read, that the company specialise in site specific performances, a form of immersion theatre in which the audience promenades through the space, and forms an integral part of the whole.  I also guessed that disorientation would be involved.

The show takes place in a former post office sorting building beside Paddington railway station, so truly on the very fringe of what might be described as central London.  Given an entry time of 7:20, we queued through zigzag barriers before being granted entry to a goods lift in a group of about 15.  We were each given a plastic mask which we wore throughout the night.  I paid special attention to what my friend was wearing so that I could identify her later on(!).

We were welcomed into Temple Studios, the fictional Hollywood institution within which two tragic parallel stories of infidelity would be played out.  The lift stopped and the doors opened.  As the last person in, I stepped out, as did my companion, and a young woman, and then the door was slammed behind us.  We were in a dimly lit, deserted concrete corridor.  The young woman, separated from her friends became a little hysterical and immediately reached for her phone to  text for help.  She stayed with us for a little while, until we came across more people and then we lost her in the crowd.

Nothing is well illuminated, apart from the stairs, so most of the evening we wandered around in semi darkness and gloom.  Occasionally we encountered some action and drama; other times we examined small rooms filled with props and accumulated ephemera.  The actors, identifiable mainly because of their absence of masks, walked from dramatic encounter to more dramatic scene.  Some of the audience, presumably those in the know, elected to follow a particular performer, so for those of us still feeling our way, a quiet space would suddenly be filled with a rush of people, a scene would be played out, and then the crowd would disperse some on the heels of one actor, the rest in the wake of the other.

The location of the drama in a film studio afforded the opportunity for ‘play within a play’, or ‘film action within a play’ doubling effects, and we saw several scenes of infidelity both on sound stages and in offset caravans.  We also heard the same song sung by two different men in drag in two different locations, and witnessed a murder, but there were a number of sequences I had read about in newspaper reviews which we didn’t see at all.

Part of the point of the shows is that every person’s experience of it is different, and that each one should be unsettling.  I, for example, kept having to reassure myself in the gloom that ‘health ‘n’ safety’ would mean that there was very little chance of me falling down a hole, my own particular fear of walking around in dark places (not unreasonably I should say as those circumstances have twice caused me to end up at a hospital Casualty).

I enjoyed the experience; the peering behind doors and walking around trying to work out what was going on, but I didn’t ever manage to grasp any real sense of narrative, nor achieve any feeling of involvement with the characters, as none of them really made enough of an impression for me to recognise them if I saw them again.  The sheer scale of it is however something to admire, as well as the extent to which it manages to disorientate; how many floors are there?  Have we been this way before? Is this sand/water/wood chips under foot?

Masking the audience also adds a strange element.  we were easily identified as having the role of voyeurs, but no single person was recognisable.  I found it a little unnerving, but for others it seemed to deprive them of any manners, and I did find myself jostled my view deliberately impeded on a number of occasions.    And it was very hot inside the plastic of the mask…… I do hope they clean them between shows……

If you’ve not tried it, I recommend it as an experience.

Leave a comment


  1. Hm, sounds a bit scary. I can’t help wondering what happened to the poor woman who was cut off from her friends.

    • I did wonder about her too, but splitting up groups is, I think, part of the schtick of the show. Later in the evening we witnessed several other instances of doors and gates being shut to block the way and break up the groups. It’s not scary, so much as a bit disconcerting.

  2. Snap! Glad you enjoyed it as well. What was your favourite part of the experience? Jx

    • Snap indeed!You had an entirely different experience to me; but I agree the rootling around in the deserted rooms was fun. I think I enjoyed the finale the best as it brought together all the cast with all their energy. I had been so impressed by the confidence and grace with which they launched themselves at each other and through the space so to see them all together in that final dance brought it to the right conclusion for me. (I didn’t see the horse either, nor the dancing on top of the car which Charles Spencer mentioned in his review, and which I would have liked to have seen – we walked past that car about six times in the hope of catching it!)


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