An invitation to review this different kind of theatrical experience landed in my inbox:
Different Breed Theatre invite you to come down to Gary’s Warehouse in Bermondsey and watch an elf (well…he says he’s an elf, the little shit) talk his way out of a hostage-taking situation. Enjoy Anthony Neilson’s hour-long dark Christmas comedy ‘The Night Before Christmas’ performed by West End actors at bargain prices. There’s food from local market traders. There’s beer from local breweries. There’s questionable secret Santa gifts, rude Christmas cards, music, and of course, an elf. You might even get to sit on Santa’s (mildly pervy) knee.
Sounds like fun, right? This will be my last London production before heading north for the holidays and it sounds like a hell of a finale. Instead, what results is a confusing, audience-led, anti-climax with a profound lack of promised food and entertainment.
The press release gives a clear, full address: Unit 3, Voyager Business Estate, Spa Road, Bermondsey, London SE16 4RP. I follow normal procedure by using Maps on my phone when I don’t know a venue. Voyager Business Estate! Sounds exciting, like the spaceship. I rush from Bermondsey Station about 20 minutes before curtain. Time is tight so tension is building prematurely. Surrounded by blocks of new-build flats in the Bermondsey Spa regeneration area, I overshoot the small industrial estate. Consulting Maps verifies this instinct, so I turn around. Triumph! There is a lull in the action driven by success. On the corner by the railway arch, high above my head, a sign: Network Rail Voyager Business Park, Units 5-8. The set placement, in conjunction with lighting, deliberately challenges the audience, particularly if they are short with poor night vision.
The lull doesn’t last long. Five – eight! No! I need number three. The street isn’t well lit and I cross over to check the dark warehouses across the road, as I can’t read the signage. No, they were called something else. It’s 10 minutes to blast off. I ring the contact number on the press release, no answer, so I leave a message. Confusion and stress is rapidly increasing in this immersive, site-specific piece.
Then it dawns on me. This is the moment where the penny drops within the slow plot reveal.
There is no hostage elf. The audience of one is the hostage. A hostage of time, a clever invitation and trendy warehouse theatre. Or am I? That seed of doubt is still present, but I now know that it is the product of years of honest, run-of-the-mill press releases that disclose more to press than they do to audiences. This is a progressive, cutting edge approach to marketing and press management, but one not particularly suited to objectivity.
A ha! Units 1-4, on the other side of the railway line. Another sign stoically sits at the top of the fence. No sign of a spaceship, though. The units are small small, set back in the railway arches. The gates are open so I can walk into the car park with a few vans, strategically using the space to block sightlines and further exacerbate audience tension. Low lighting helps generates a sinister environment.
I face Unit 3. It’s shuttered. No lights. It’s 7:27. The shutter is sturdy and dark, an effective aversion to potential trespassers, symbolizing the shutters around cynics’ hearts in the run up to Christmas. I phone again. Still no answer. I leave another message. I like the agency of using our own phones to make contact and the integration of technology, a powerful reminder of our dependency on mobile phones.
It’s at this point that the experience is a let down. There is no signage, no other characters, nothing. Just me, stood in a dark, empty car park. Do I wait? The plot starts to disintegrate. I explore the space. I even knock on the unit 3 shutter. Is this a test? A puzzle? Will I soon be met by someone who’s running late? Whatever this performance has become, it’s effectively evoking anxiety in the audience. A final phone call goes straight to voicemail. The performance started a few minutes ago but it already feels like it’s ended despite the promised hour-long running time. The sound also seems to malfunction, as there is no music. Stomach growls also pointedly comment on the obvious lack of food and drink. I decide to utilize my autonomy and head home.
As hours pass and puzzlement fails to dissipate, I question the message of the piece. It raises more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the entire point: sometimes, communications and events mysteriously malfunction, but it’s up to us to take control of the spaceship that is our life. A powerful thought.
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