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Against Captain's Orders (National Maritime Museum)

Punchdrunk bring their trademark immersive touch to children at Greenwich's maritime museum

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Richard Popple and Lowri James
© Paul J Cochrane

Did you ever take the trench experience at the Imperial War Museum? Until a major upgrade last year, it involved a three-minute stroll down the Western Front as manned by shop mannequins in uniform. One lay on a stretcher, paint peeling off his face. Another knelt in a bolt hole, cooking sausages with an electronic sizzle. All the horrors of modern warfare - in fibreglass form.

Against Captain's Orders sets itself up to be just as shoddy. When curator Arthur Ambrose introduces himself, with his well-pressed chinos and his geed-up enthusiasm, we brace ourselves for the worst. Some of us have got clipboards – a sure sign of organised ‘fun' – and we're being schooled in call and response. Each of us is in a lifejacket, feeling stupid, sat in one of four fake dinghies at a fake jetty. There are handouts. Fun times, ahoy.

Only that's when things start to go wrong. Arthur's colleague Glan Owens touches one of the exhibits – the one thing we're not meant to do – and, quicker than you can say ‘Cat o'nine tails,' the museum's security system's kicked in, returning every item to the storage vaults.

It's our job, then, to dig Glan and Arthur out of this mess by replacing those objects and before long we're behind the scenes at the Maritime Museum, racing through service corridors, ignoring safety notices and deciphering archival codes. Worse: the curators all know we're in here and the PX1000, which sucks up the exhibits, has gone into overdrive, pulling in every item in Greenwich – the Cutty Sark included.

What's so clever about this is that it's all woven into the real world. We'd never have accepted an all-hands-on-deck adventure, knowing ourselves to be in the basement of a land-locked museum in Greenwich, but we can buy into an adventure into the museum's vaults as Simon Davies's script requires. This being the bits that we're not meant to see, the urgency and danger suddenly feels real too – so much so that even the idea of a haunted drum doesn't feel daft.

It's a bit like a real-life version of The Crystal Maze or Monkey Island. There are codes to crack and treasures to find – all well marshalled by Richard Popple and Sammy Kissin, as our amiable guides. Typical of Punchdrunk Enrichment - the kids arm of the immersive specialists - each room is heaving with curios and laced with jokes for the eagle-eyed. Off one corridor, I spotted the Swashbuckling Parrots room; feathers spilling out of the crack beneath the door. Directors Peter Higgin and Katy Balfour keep us moving so fast that we can't push at the limits.

This isn't going to instil nautical knowledge – that's what the rest of the museum's for, and Against Captain's Orders makes it seem like a much more interesting place, full of possibility and wonder, jam-packed with stories and trinkets. What it will do, however – and this is much more valuable – is instil a sense of adventure; the very thing a born sailor needs.

Against Captain's Orders: A Journey into the Uncharted runs until 31 August