Give the theatre collective Shunt a space and it will create a spectacle in it. From its first incarnation in the railway arches in Bethnal Green, to the Shunt Lounge in the tunnels underneath London Bridge station and most recently a warehouse on Bermondsey Street, Shunt constantly challenges its audiences through pieces of theatre that explode and explore the concept of space as a catalyst for performance. With such space-defying productions, the excitement for Shunt’s newest exploration, The Architects, taking over the old Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey, is understandable. It’s just a shame that whilst the space offers surprises and (a small) spectacle, Shunt is (once again) let down by a lack of narrative commitment, or perhaps over-comittment, leaving the audience bemused and, in the case of this reviewer, frustrated.
Based on the mythical stories of the Minotaur, audiences enter the Biscuit Factory and find themselves in a labyrinth of MDF rooms and corridors. There are hints of what may lie ahead glimpsed through windows and doors, through telephones and televisions. The effect of wandering through what seems an endless maze of rooms, harshly lit by strip lighting embedded into the doors is quite disorientating, but equally exciting. This theme of confusion is returned to throughout The Architects, and in this particular sequence, the audience finds itself emerging unexpectedly into a gigantic bar-come-dance-hall, lined with tables and chairs and a bar. The floor and walls evoke grandeur and the port holes lining one wall hint that we are on board a ship at sea. Everything is to play for, but sadly this is where The Architects stops playing and becomes a dull and repetitive evening.
We’re aboard an ocean-liner built from the luxuries of the world, and equipped with everything we might need from life. Our hosts are The Architects, those who see the world’s buildings as explorations into the imagination. There’s a machine that offers a dolphin ejaculation experience. But for all it’s glamour, it seems this ship is destined to sink: there’s an amnesty needed on the fire axes and someone’s pooped by the favourite point for star gazing. It’s time to evacuate.
The problem with The Architects is that while it sets up a perfectly exciting premise for performance, it never goes beyond this. We’re forced to endure the gradual decline of the ship and its occupants (along with the hosts) through blackout after blackout, huddled around tables, when really we want to be free to move, to enjoy the band and sip our drinks. This isn’t helped by the temperature of the Biscuit Factory which chills to the bone, and after an hour of sitting and observing, the need to move and to explore as we did upon entering, becomes increasingly apparent. Confined to our seats, the pace falters and even an aerial display in an adjacent space – making much better use of the warehouse setting by revealing a cavernous space – can’t bring the pace back up. There’s no urgency, no dilemma, and we as the audience feel underused. We want to be fed to the Minotaur and lost in the labyrinth, not stuck at tables all night.
True, audiences might enjoy the performance if they’re use to traditional proscenium arch plays, or after a few drinks at the bar (which stays open late – I only wish the show had continued instead!) but otherwise The Architects is tantalising for a spectacular treat, but disappointing in execution. The same was true of Shunt’s last show, Money. Caught in creating something truly unique they forget about the audience experience.
The Architects plays at The Biscuit Factory in Bermondsey until 2 February 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Shunt website.