Review – the Uncommercial Traveller – Punchdrunk and Arcola Theaters

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So. Punchdrunk and the Arcola hook up. Their baby is as follows: “Inspired by The Uncommercial Traveller, Charles Dickens account of his wanderings around London, Arcola Theatre and Punchdrunk Enrichment present an unexpected encounter in a surprising East London location.”

Inspired by wanderings? And there is “a headphone journey?” So a promenade, eh?

Well, once again I totally missed the boat in interpreting what kind of show I was going to see, as I was certain we were going to actually walk around the neighborhood (right next to the Geffrye as it turned out) and packed a raincoat and hat in preparation. I was excited about seeing the neighborhood through Dickens’ eyes! And then on the day of we had the kind of torrential downpour I associate more with Tropical Storm Insert Name here, and when I did finally make it to the location (late due to rain delays) I was THRILLED that it turned out all we were going to do was sit in a darkened room with a few actors and have a little chat.

The atmosphere was very cool in the space: a room lit by dim lamps, with 5 people in costume sat at tables. I saw a baldish man, a woman who looked like a fortune teller, and a lady well past her prime hiding behind a fan. We were ushered to our seats (in the People’s Soup Collective or something like this) by the proprietress, who evenly distributed us around the various actors. When she disappeared, the actors began to engage us. I only got my experience, which I will relate here: a woman in her mid fifties, wearing a tattered wedding dress (not very appropriate for any Victorian era but that’s community theater for you) and with a bouquet of dried roses, introduced herself (“Millie Perkins”) and told the three of us how she’d come to London. She was poor but honest, working as a seamstress in the soup shop and living downstairs.

At this point we were interrupted by the proprietress, who handed out cups with soup in them to all present. It was vegetable, and very nice too. Millie continued to tell us about her boyfriend, Robert, and how he was going to be married to her tomorrow “but ‘e ‘asn’t been seen in six weeks.” I foresaw difficulties ahead for Millie’s romantic life. Millie, meanwhile, asked us about our sweethearts and doled out advice on how to catch and keep a man.

Then the lights went dark briefly and, when they rose, the actors one by one took groups of people through the building and downstairs. The interior was all very atmospheric: I wondered if Victorian restaurants (for the poor) were always poorly lit, or if they would have had big windows. Meanwhile, the downstairs was split up by hanging curtains, very much reminding me of what I’d read about housing conditions in the London slums in the late Victorian era. We were taken into Millie’s room and sat on her bed while she went through her things. At one point a piercing scream rent the air – “Oh, ignore that woman, she does it all the time” – and then, to no suprise, we had the denouement that Robert would not be attending the wedding via a little note Millie gave to me to read. She also screamed, then told us to leave her alone. We exited via a different back door, going past a man who sat sharpening knives menacingly.

All told I actually really enjoyed my little adventure despite it being not what I expected. Even though Millie’s story was slim, the atmosphere was great, the price was right (£6), and at 20 minutes it was like a little appetizer that whet the appetite rather than outstaying its welcome. My companion, Fausterella, also enjoyed it, and like me enjoyed catching up with other people about what they had seen (sadly neither of us got the Sweeney Todd style butcher man). However, Gareth James, who went on the same day, felt quite differently about it all. I don’t feel ultimately like I got much Dickens out of it, but I am still intrigued by the walk described on the Arcola’s website and will probably do it in my free time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, July 17th, 2011. This was the last day of this show.)

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One Response to “Review – the Uncommercial Traveller – Punchdrunk and Arcola Theaters”

  1. garethjames Says:

    Now I feel even more cheated as we didn’t go downstairs at all and left by the same door! Think twice about the walk – listen to the download first (if it’s still up).

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