Michael Coveney: Punchdrunk in Paddington, growing with Grandage
Critics have been piling in to see the latest from Punchdrunk at the "mystery" location next door to Paddington Station, an old Royal Mail sorting office that has been reclaimed as a 1960s Hollywood film studio (on three vast floors) recreating two parallel versions of Woyzeck by Georg Buchner.
There's another press performance on Wednesday, so reviews are embargoed until Thursday, but the company is anxious to make clear that there are plenty of tickets on sale (not much short of £50 a throw) in August; if the weather continues like this you may want to hang around until October or November.I thought Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death was poor as far as Edgar Allan Poe was concerned, and the coercive treatment of the audience, affiliated to the laissez faire of "You discover what you want to see, there's no narrative urgency about any of this," leaves me cold. There's a sort of de-sensitising, disorienting element to the work, too, that makes you feel like a torture victim. And the actors aren't all that good.
My favourite moment in Masque of the Red Death was the sight of inveterate first-nighter Blanche Marvin running down a darkened corridor, her little kimono-clad arms flapping like bat's wings, yelling, "How do I get out of this place?"
So I rocked up to Paddington, fighting my way through crowds of summer tourists, full of trepidation, not to say, fear. I'm all for ghost trains and houses of haunted horror in the fairground. And I used to love the great communal, orgiastic theatre shows of the Living Theatre and others back in the day when such events were genuine expressions of the counter-culture, not faintly elitist art school extravaganzas for the middle-class metropolitan trendy in-crowd.
But with The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable we shall have to wait and see. Actually, seeing is part of the problem. It can be so dark and discombobulating in their shows that you emerge into daylight three hours later slightly nervous about your optical efficiency system, blinking like a mole and checking your long range vision on passing bus numbers.
But what a fantastic weekend. We beat the Aussies at cricket in one of the most exciting games of all time, and I splashed around in a paddling pool with my granddaughter for a couple of hours. Our apples are going to be the best ever, and we've never had so many raspberries – already! But, of course, everyone's now saying it's too darned hot. We are such a nation of moaning whingers that a rare spell of glorious heat and sunshine, coming after the wettest and most miserable winter, spring and indeed June in living memory is greeted with the sort of public rapture that should be reserved for a Biblical plague.
The weather is good news at least for theatregoers lucky enough to be sitting in auditoria with good air-con or, even better, the open air. Holland Park, for instance, was as crowded as Brighton beach on Saturday evening, and it was shirt-sleeve order for the last night crowd at this season's thoroughly enjoyable production of Bizet's Pearl Fishers.
I'd started the day in the West End, noting crowds of people queuing for tickets at the box office outside both Private Lives and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and enjoying an al fresco breakfast just off Leicester Square. I was on my way to see a free performance of a youth theatre response to The Cripple of Inishmaan in the Michael Grandage Company season at the Noel Coward.
The response came from two dozen apprentices aged between 16 and 25 who make up the Futures Company, part of the MGC, who have been rehearsing and devising the show - The Measure Of It - under the professional guidance of directors Dominic Francis and Samantha Lane, with mentoring input from Grandage himself, as well as Daniel Radcliffe and others on the production team.
I was impressed to see Radcliffe sneaking into the theatre for the show, dropped by a purring limo in St Martin's Lane and so quick off his marks that no-one knew he was there... no Saturday morning shopping for him, no ambling in the sunshine or hanging loose in public, poor devil.
Grandage was there, too, and so were the designer Christopher Oram (his partner), producer James Bierman with his partner, Katie Mitchell - that's another Katie Mitchell, the development officer - with their new ten-week old little girl, Clara ("Ah, so sweet"), and hordes of proud parents, friends and other cast members of Cripple.
The 20-minute show, supported by the Noel Coward Foundation, suitably enough, was pretty good - a litanical riff on themes of drudgery, escape and aspiration, with some good ensemble work and set-pieces - but what was most impressive was the assurance of the performers, their confidence on the stage, their good vocal projection, their palpable sense of fun and delight in what they were doing. And most of them don't even want to be actors - they are learning skills in designing, sound and lights, marketing, producing.
Mind you, I'd be surprised if one or two of them don't choose the Radcliffe route. One parent I got talking to later emailed me the link to his son's Edinburgh show, Chalk Farm, in which he's playing the lead at the Underbelly from 1 August. Thomas Dennis is the name, and you may want to remember you read that here first; he looks more than promising.