Go through a nondescript door in a wall at London Bridge station, step through a locker (why not?) and you enter a panelled room. You might be in an ante-room in a grand college or gentlemen's club. A measured, RP voice tells you over the public address system that tomorrow the bar staff may be reptiles, so make the most of it. Panels at different heights are removed to reveal friendly purveyors of booze.
The voice announces that the Institute is in charge, that doors are locked, that its watchword is "understanding" and that we are most alive when we fear. People smile a little apprehensively: no doubt this is a joke, but we are after all powerless and this is no place for claustrophobics. You enter an industrial-style lift with 30 others and apparently proceed downwards, guided by a liftman who takes a Polaroid snap as if we are on a Disney ride.
Darkness is the main feature of the next section, when after being 'welcomed' by a young woman in charge of a stack of cages and warned that it will be useful to distinguish an elephant from a stick man (helpful drawings provided), we are herded into a vast, arched vault. What proceeds is beautifully, subtly lit - a man violently attacking a pineapple, glittery feet walking, suspended bodies in cages passing by, a hearse slowly guided through the gloom, showgirls posing in feathered head-dresses - but it is far too long.
If I am supposed to be disorientated, I'm not particularly, merely irritated. This looks far more fun to be in than to watch. The audience is rendered inferior, passive, uncertain of its role. Is this someone else's party?
Next, there is a 1960s-style happening with showgirls swinging on trapezes and dancing on the hearse to loud rock music, which is fun, but so what? The last section confronts our ultimate fear - death, but the joke autopsy is not frightening, thought-provoking or funny enough. There is no follow-through from the Orwellian beginning. And, disappointingly, no elephants.
The vaults themselves, Shunt's base for the next three years, are magnificent - a huge, arched, dusty, atmospheric space. Tropicana is presented in collaboration with the National Theatre. It is encouraging that the NT is not resting on its considerable laurels. Better luck next time in the experimental stakes.
- Heather Neill