Punchdrunk by name, punchdrunk by nature. The latest theatre company to receive Nicholas Hytner's NT patronage, Punchdrunk made their name last year with The Firebird Ball, a merging of Romeo and Juliet and the Russian folk myth, The Firebird, in promenade.
Promenading around derelict buildings has suddenly become big business. Some may remember Deborah Warner's subtly terrifying installation inside Gilbert Scott's wonderful gothic pile, the Midland hotel at St Pancras. Others will cite, more recently, Shunt, who forsook their Hackney arches for ones underneath London Bridge at the NT's instigation, only to find that institutional approval can be a poisoned chalice.
Dreamthinkspeak are another young company keen to break the bonds of passive theatregoing. Their Dostoyevsky-adapted Underground last year, set in an abandoned abbatoir in Smithfields, was as stylish a piece of promenade installation theatre as I can remember. Now we have Punchdrunk hoping to repeat their Firebird Ball success and sorry to say, chaps, it doesn't quite cut the mustard.
Once again, you can roam the corridors of an abandoned building (a factory in Docklands), this time following the adventures of Faust as he tastes the heights and delights of hedonism and comes to his habitually sticky end. Felix Barrett's production – if you can find it, there is absolutely no signage - echoes to the sound of banging doors and trudging feet as audiences stumble across characters in mid-fight, peer into rooms bereft of humans but punctiliously decked out as old style haberdashery and sweetie shopfronts or loom into what looks very like old Faust's scholarly cell complete with cosmological charts, diagrams, tubes and burners.
You can't fault the atmospherics thanks to the talents of Robin Harvey (design), Tina Bicat (costume), Matt Prentice (lighting) and Stephen Dobbie (sound). Installations have come a long way in their sophisticated handling of random and carefully planned elements.
Yet, though Maxine Doyle's set pieces are themselves small gems of choreographic athleticism with Dan Canham's Faust, Vinicius Salles’ Mephistopholes and Sarah Labigne’s Gretchen as resilient as they are brave in the lengths to which they are forced to go, the sum total is less drenching than you might expect. A sense of exploitative sensationalism begins to creep in as once more, spectators are drawn, as if by osmosis, to witness another explosive sexual or physically violent encounter.
An every day morality tale for our times of the wages of excess, my fellow travellers seemed at one and the same time confused, excited and happy to be horrified. Performances run from 7-10pm and last around 90 minutes, on a continuing loop. You can linger or hop in whenever you like. It's entirely up to you. Good luck.
- Carole Woddis