Review: VIOLA'S ROOM, One Cartridge Place

Kick off your shoes and dance: Punchdrunk's latest immersive adventure takes us into the heart of obsession.

By: Jun. 03, 2024
Review: VIOLA'S ROOM, One Cartridge Place
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Review: VIOLA'S ROOM, One Cartridge Place Please note that this review contains light spoilers.

In a sudden lurch away from their epic 2022 creation The Burnt City, immersive specialists Punchdrunk’s next effort is a far more cosy affair. Small barefoot groups walk their way through the Nineties fairytale world of Viola’s Room with the story relayed over headphones by Helena Bonham Carter

Based on Barry Pain’s gothic tale The Moon-Slave, it started life in the company’s early days and was both a more intimate and grander affair than its present adaptation. Co-founder (and creator, co-director and designer of Viola’s Room) Felix Barrett has spoken of how they set up the show for a solo audience member who would be driven into the countryside and, at the conclusion, be faced with two hundred scarecrows pointed in their direction, a musical crescendo and a marine flare that “turned the whole world red”.

For all its international roster of productions across the world, Punchdrunk is currently in a precarious position - and the rocky first few weeks of Viola’s Room with their multiple show cancellations and technical failures have not helped matters. The latest accounts make for grim reading: despite global revenues rising from £1.3m in 2022 to £13.2m the following year, the company’s operating losses in 2023 almost quadrupled £4m over twelve months. Pointing to missed loan payments, the company’s auditors baldly stated that “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the group’s and parent company’s ability to exist as a going concern”. Meanwhile, the controversial selection of Bonham Carter - who has in past interviews has defended Johnny Depp and JK Rowling - has been openly criticised by their fans and called “a crass choice” on social media (co-director Hector Harkness declined a request to comment on this casting).

Review: VIOLA'S ROOM, One Cartridge Place
Photo credit: Julian Abrams

Even though it is staged in the same massive Woolwich venue, Viola’s Room is about as different to The Burnt City as it is possible to get. The most obvious change is that this is no open world adventure where audiences can closely follow characters on their loops across Troy and Mycenae, wander from room to room inspecting everything at leisure or take a breather in the Peep bar. Instead, after being divested of our shoes and socks amd handed our Bowes & Wilkins headsets, the plot is rolled out in a linear fashion and we are walked through a promenade experience like Layered Reality’s War Of The Worlds and its sister show The Gunpowder Plot or Punchdrunk’s own It Felt like A Kiss (2009).

While its predecessor lasted up to three hours, this is a time-boxed stroll which takes about sixty minutes to traverse. The trademark white masks have been ditched with the lightweight headsets providing both soundscape and narrative as we travel along (audio description is reportedly unavailable until 10 June but mono audio is available for those with hearing issues). Lastly, other than Bonham Carter in audio form, there are no actors directly involved. 

The source story - about a princess lured into a demonic world of nocturnal dancing - was first published in 1901 but Harkness sets this updated take firmly in the mid-1990s. To the sound of Tori Amos, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden, we enter a teenager’s bedroom, the music bolstered by posters, gadgets, DVDs and books to create a real sense of the period even if the location is left somewhat ambiguous. A period of reclining in complete darkness is followed by some crawling through an opening and walking under cloud-like ceiling lights down a corridor. 

Review: VIOLA'S ROOM, One Cartridge Place
Photo credit: Julian Abrams

Casey Jay Andrews’s set design and Simon Wilkinson’s lighting are simply breathtaking at points. The adventure takes us from room to room where we witness largely static set pieces of variable quality. Some - including a banquet table filled with (fake) rotting fruit depicted in the smallest morbid detail, a stunning light sequence in a chapel and the sandy finale - are emotionally satisfying and memorable while others cleave to the story but are otherwise underwhelming. 

There’s a genuine sense of journey here as we go with Viola (and Helena) into the heart of the maze and witness a madness take hold. Bonham Carter’s evocative delivery draws us into the princess’ plight. The attention paid to every part of the rooms is pure Punchdrunk but there is usually too little time for us to properly stop and drink in the glorious details in each scene. Gareth Fry’s sound design is electric at times and Harkness has form when it comes to audio-based productions like last December’s narrative-heavy One Night, Long Ago (which he co-created with Kath Duggan). The emphasis on spoken word over visual input, though, leaves us either in suspenseful anticipation or, as we wander down yet another cloud-lit passageway, feeling like we are listening to an audiobook on the way to work.

It’s doubtful that Viola’s Room will do the kind of business or generate the same sense of wonder as The Burnt City. That latter show saw dedicated Punchdrunk followers return tens of times and, thanks to a full-blast marketing across the capital, hugely expanded the company’s fanbase. The use of complete darkness and underfoot sensations is a novel feature but makes less and less impact the further into the maze we travel. Viola’s Room is overall a tighter work which offers a far more cohesive theatrical experience but, unlike many of the Punchdrunk productions before it, does not have enough wow factor to justify a second viewing.

Viola's Room continues until 18 August.

Photo credit: Julian Abrams


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