Review: The Uncommercial Traveller

Giving a review of Punchdrunk’s latest immersive offering, we have our guest writer, the inimitable Pauline Stobbs. The Uncommercial Traveller is a snapshot of the dark and fractured underbelly of Victorian London that Dickens spent so much time observing.

The Uncommercial Traveller

To witness any Punchdrunk performance is an essential part of your theatrical education.
The Uncommercial Traveller
is a brief example of the fragmentary storytelling, blurry depths of characterisation and superb set design on which Punchdrunk has made its name.  Their collaborations include the ENO, Battersea Arts Centre and most recently, the BBC’s Doctor Who team for the Manchester International festival. This collaboration with east-focused Arcola theatre promised to draw out the past documented so acutely in Dickens’ collection of literary sketches.

Keep reading after the jump.

Your journey begins fifty minutes prior to your arrival – a charming audio trail sends you off from Hackney Town Hall, leading you through some of the finest parts of the East End, to the tune of clanging harmonics and a narrative of the area’s eclectic history. Ending at a row of uninspiring 80s shop fronts, the audio trail serves to exaggerate the difference between the finesse of Broadway market and lush greenery of London Fields, and the slum-darkness of Dickens London in which you are now led. In the candlelit darkness you strain to take in the detail of the rusty brassware on the walls, the dust floor, rough wooden benches, dripped wax on the walls. Much of the performance is film-like from the intricate detail of the thoughtful interior to the melodies of the audio trail, reminiscent of Joby Talbot’s film scores.

We were invited by the brisk and grubby host to take some soup in a dusty corner, and became acquainted with a shy kitchen hand from the West Indies. Questions were asked and answers given; some more tentatively by us the audience of three. When she asked me to read the letter that came with her on her first voyage to England, I strained to see the handwritten note on yellowing paper in the dimming light. Was I the first person to vocalise these kind words of parental love? Even the wax seal was unbroken. All too soon the fishwife ushered us out, and so came the end of The Uncommercial Traveller.

The most frustrating aspect of this production is the brevity of the performance. Kicked out into blinding sunshine after a mere thirty minutes you are desperate to return and discover more about the characters within. Or just to explore the poky, but impeccable set. I literally cannot reveal too much in this review – there were too many characters I didn’t meet. (Who was the Indian woman wrapped in widows robes leading that man by the hand?) Your encounter will be so different from mine I almost envy you.

Even the best immersive theatre can be tainted by your own awkwardness. Were we rubbing shoulders with the underworld in a filthy and impoverished world so perfectly documented by Dickens? Or were we drinking Baxters from a prop minutes away from the artisan cheeses of Broadway Market? As the kitchen hand told of us of her treacherous journey across the sea from St Kitts to a large estate, my first thought was of the troubled high-rise blocks of the actress’ home in Hackney, not the country manor her character later described. In full-scale Punchdrunk productions, you have the time to explore, to relax into your role as more voyeuristic extra than static audience member. In this collaboration you had neither the choice to explore nor the time to accept your role.

While The Uncommercial Traveller lacked the charisma or excitement of its other productions, its reasonable price (£6 rather than the standard £40 for a full length production) serves it well as an introduction to immersive theatre. Its intention is admirable and it offers a pleasing shot of Punchdrunk, rather than a glut. Ideal for Punchdrunk addicts short on cash and time.

The Uncommercial Traveller, Punchdrunk and Arcola Theatre
Until 17th July, Saturdays and Sundays only.
Information and tickets here.

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