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Absent (Shoreditch Town Hall)

An immersive take on the true story of the Duchess of Argyll is a 'masterclass in storytelling through spaces'

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Absent is the sort of show that can change your world for a while. You might saunter along to Shoreditch Town Hall focused on getting to your destination - head-down, quick march - but when you step out of it, you can't help but see your surroundings afresh. You'll see all those Hoxton bars and flats, but you'll also see the history hidden beneath them; the London we've left behind, the London we've lost.

Inspired by the Duchess of Argyll, a socialite who lived in a swish London hotel for a full 12 years before running out of credit, Absent whisks us back to the heyday of hospitality. Or rather, it doesn't. Dreamthinkspeak's labyrinthine installation moves us through the soulless corridors of a contemporary chain hotel - each room an identikit plywood cubicle - without ever letting us forget what was there before: grand ballrooms, crisp white tablecloths, champagne saucers and chandeliers. And much more importantly, people - laughing, loving, living.

The Duchess, here, becomes Margaret du Beaumont, a resident since 1965, downgraded from a suite to a room to a bland budget single, and now, finally, facing eviction. This is a masterclass in storytelling through spaces; Tristan Sharps at his very best. There's only one performer, glimpsed briefly through glass, sloshing down whisky and staring into a mirror, aghast at her age. The rest you do through detective work, piecing together stray newspaper articles fawning over this society belle, final warnings about unpaid bills, and architectural plans that squeeze three single rooms into what used to be one spacious suite.

"Absent will make your heart grow fonder"

As the title implies, Absent's about what's gone missing. We only ever catch traces of the Duchess and of the hotel as it once was. Peer through the peephole in a door and there's a sepia society ball in full swing; one glam young woman - Breakfast at Tiffany's Audrey, essentially - sweeping from table to table. Bend down and you're staring into one of Adrian Hardy's tiny model suites, crammed with lush details, like a post-potion Alice in Wonderland. Open an empty bottle of perfume and - whoosh - your head spins with the scent. This must be what Proust felt like on munching that madeleine.

It swells, very slowly, into a genuinely potent experience, so heavy with melancholy that you find yourself slowing right down, almost lingering to prolong something or preserve it. A song swims in the background - Alice Boman's "Waiting" - and each room feels emptier than the last. You run your hand over surfaces: leather sofas, dusty shelves, brick walls that might just have absorbed something of the past. It makes you mourn for bricks and mortar.

Mostly, though, you're mourning for a society motored by profit margins; one that strips the soul out of a place to squeeze more in; so determined to renew that it neglects to preserve. Once something's gone, we know it's gone - only theatre can change that. It can let us step into a lost world and when it does, that's quite something. Truly, Absent will make your heart grow fonder.

Absent runs at Shoreditch Town Hall until 25 October