Recently there has been a wave of immersive theatre in London, led by Punchdrunk , Felix Barrett’s innovative audience-interactive dramas,. Now Secret Cinema have got in on the act with this extraordinary blend of theatre, live music and promenade.
Audience members are given strict instructions to bring with them gifts for a stranger, flowers for Mrs Undine, proprietress of the hotel (a converted school in Hackney) and to wear their best clothes. They are met on arrival by chambermaids and bellboys, all dressed in period costumes. The setting of the evening is 1927. Guests are politely asked to leave their mobile phones and cameras at the door. Once inside, they are free to wander the rooms of the hotel. In one room, birds are bizarrely kept behind netting, recalling the theme of Laura’s album. In another, a woman lies Ophelia like in a bath, covered in flowers. A psychiatrist sees patients for a group therapy session. And an erotic pas de deux unfolds on the stairway between a crazed woman in a red dress and her partner in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker. Then on the upper landing Marling sings a slowed down duet with Eddie Berman of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark. It’s spine tingling and not a word of the song is wasted. And then suddenly they are gone again.
Then at eight o’clock guests are requested to go to the ballroom for the evening’s performance, which takes place in what would have been the school’s gymnasium, although it’s been immaculately styled with full-length red velvet curtains.
when Laura Marling appears its as though the spell has been broken somewhat, because her voice belongs to no age but this one. Nevertheless, the concert is mesmerizing and the audience are captivated, listening intently to songs mostly from Once I was an Eagle. Marling is accompanied by guitar, double bass and cello for the first song, after which she is all by herself. Her voice is delicate, wry, sometimes bitter, it follows the twisting chords she picks out on her guitar. It’s fiery and passionate music. Sample lyric: ‘dark before the dawn is the darkest I can go’ from Breathe. She forgot the words on Sunday night, but a woman from the audience rescued her, calling out the forgotten words.
Even after the concert, guests are welcome to stay and linger, watching actors playing croquet on the lawn. There were no more than 400 guests on the night I was there, for a musician of Marling’s stature it’s a tiny number, bearing in mind that she could fill a venue like the Brixton Academy (4000 capacity) several nights running.
Neil McCormack of the Telegraph has called this the most extraordinary gig he has ever seen. I don’t go to enough gigs to say whether this statement is justified. But I will say this: for audience’s for whom the cost of a theatre ticket is nothing more than a very expensive sleeping pill (to quote the New York Times) this may be just what they are looking for. Yes, its expensive (tickets £35), but it’s all so immaculately conceived, with everyone responsible maintaining the theme of an old hotel that looks like Jay Gatsby’s mansion after the money’s gone.
As for Punchdrunk, they will soon begin a massive staging of The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. With 50,000 extra tickets available, it looks like most people who want to go will get the chance.