Immersive theatre is a strange beast, isn't it? With so many possibilities and everybody's experience so unique to them, how is it ever possible to do a fair and justified review? That is the difficult position I find myself in with The Burnt City. All I can do is talk about my own experience there but please take this review with a pinch of salt as you will most likely get a completely different experience.
The latest offering from Punchdrunk is their most ambitious project yet, taking over two Grade II Listed buildings in Woolwich with over 100,000 square feet of space for the occasion. Reuniting the creative team behind Sleep No More, which previously wowed audiences, this marks their first time in London since 2014.
The basic premise of The Burnt City (and I would strongly encourage anyone going to have some essential knowledge before experiencing it) is around the time of the fall of Troy where a mythical world of Gods and mortals rise from the ashes while the city comes alive at night for one last time.
Kicking off with an exhibition style room where artefacts are displayed along information providing a backstory, it really does pay off to pay attention in this room, as when you are thrown into the immersive world a few minutes later, it can be very easy to find yourself lost. All visitors are given a mask to place over their face to add to the atmosphere and easily identify your fellow guests to the performers – though the fact the venue is extremely dark means you will be barged by your fellow visitors repeatedly throughout the experience. The whole thing is also shrouded in secrecy with your phones locked away in a pouch the moment you enter – perhaps something more theatres should consider, judging by recent events.
After a brief audio tour, The Burnt City reveals itself in a mesmerising way – the sheer scale of the experience is jaw dropping. Moments later, you make your first decision – turn left or turn right? There is no fixed spot for you to be in so you are able to move around freely, exploring the depths of the vast space to find any secrets you can uncover over the course of three packed hours with no breaks (though you are free to take one if you so wish). If you aren’t feeling brave enough to wander off on your own (and I definitely wasn’t), you can follow the crowd who in turn will follow the performers watching their stories unfold.
I know immersive theatre isn't to everybody's taste but I fall in the camp of someone who mostly likes it. My only issue is being a chronic overthinker who gets anxious about making the wrong choice in the moment and regretting it instantly. I feel like this might have happened here. I kept seeing and hearing glimpses from other rooms and it left me wondering what I was missing and if they were enjoying it more than I did. I found myself in a fairly monotonous story where I ended up following one performer move back and forth across two rooms for far too long which really created a lull in the middle. There are key moments throughout the experience which everyone comes together to see, including the key ending –the way they timed this to all come together is a testament to the brilliance of everyone involved.
One thing you can’t deny is how impressive the staging for The Burnt City is. Designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns, every room was truly stunning with incredible attention to detail. Extremely atmospheric with music pulsing throughout, at its best it is a feast for the senses The performers are all in a league of their own, and while they might not interact with visitors as much as other immersive experiences, they are captivating to watch, even if they are in the middle of one of the less riveting storylines. With choreography from Maxine Doyle, the dancing and movement is the greatest aspect of The Burnt City¸ with countless opportunities to watch the fantastic cast of International performers showcase their talents in a truly unique setting - predominantly silent, they find ways to convey their feelings through movement and expression, though sometimes the narrative of the story feels hard to follow or completely lost.
My problem with The Burnt City is for immersive theatre, I didn’t feel very immersed – however I only have myself to blame for that one. Had I been braver and broken off from the herd to explore the dark depths of the buildings, I’m sure I would have discovered much more to keep me entertained. My advice to anyone going is to be brave and do this – if you do find yourself in a dead end, go somewhere else. If only I’d listened to my own advice.
Still, I can’t deny The Burnt City is a truly impressive piece of theatre – with scale, gorgeous sets and a fantastic cast. Clever albeit inconsistent at times, this is a production which doesn’t lend itself very well to a star rating as it might have got something completely different had I turned left or turned right, so to be fair, all I can be is neutral. It may not have been my favourite piece of immersive theatre I’ve ever experienced, but had I made different choices, it might well have been.
The Burnt City is booking until December 8th with tickets available from www.theburntcity.com