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Viola's Room | Punchdrunk

Described as a moonlit fever dream, this immersive experience by Punchdrunk delivers just that. An experience like no other, Viola’s Room uses multiple sensory elements to immerse you in the story of Viola - a princess who loses her parents at a young age and is due to be married to a prince as soon as she’s old enough. Feel like you’ve heard that story before? Of course you have. But I can promise you you’ve never heard it like this.

Set to a story written by Booker Prize-shortlisted Daisy Johnson, performed by Helena Bonham Carter, and based on Barry Pain’s gothic mystery short story of The Moon Slave, you listen to the story with personalised headsets as you walk through various rooms and spaces, which bring the story to life and immerse you in it. There are no actors, only you and the other audience members on this journey.

The immersion is beautifully done through the sensory elements of sight, sound and touch - but not always in the way you think it is. In order to follow the story, you must always ‘follow the light’, which is quite literal as it’s the only way to guide you through the maze. The lighting (Simon Wilkinson) here is exquisite. Walking around, it felt like a celebration of the power of light - in its ability to be shaped and its resounding silence when it’s completely taken away. The moments of pure darkness feel suspicious and exhilarating, and the moments of brilliantly timed lights lift the panic off your chest that you didn’t even know was there. As someone who is easily scared, I will admit that moments of tension in the story, combined with darkness or blackouts, really got my heart racing. But it was thrilling, because even when I couldn’t count on my vision, I was grounded by my feet. Yes, my feet.

This experience is done barefoot and was my favourite aspect of the show. I was nervous at first about going through something barefoot, but the team at Punchdrunk do everything possible to make it comfortable - sanitising stations, towels, boxes and labels to keep your shoes safe, and a foot wash station at the end. And being barefoot was essential, because this means you can feel the ground beneath you change as the story changes. At first, with the innocence of Viola, you have soft carpet and smooth fabric beneath your feet. As the story progresses and things get more intense, the ground changes to hard, earthy and sandy. And all of this works to ground you (literally at times) to the story. Experiencing the story through your feet was entirely new to me, but so brilliantly enjoyable and satisfying.

Combined with impeccable audio (Gareth Fry), both in soundscape and delivery of the text, this show makes for a fantastic ride. While the plot does not feel fully fleshed out, it’s important to realise that the storyline is not the centrepiece. This was hard for me to accept at first, as I was focused on the audio above all else. But once I leaned into the experience as multi-sensory, with equal weight to all the senses, the immersion became real and surprising.

The only two issues with this piece? Advertised at a 60-minute experience, by the time you’re inside and listening to the story, it only amounts to about 45-minutes worth of storytelling. The experience feels too short, almost like an abrupt end to a sleepwalker's dream. I also missed the presence of live actors in the show, and would have appreciated them being there to enhance the story. Although, I will admit that having them there might have made things even scarier - but maybe that’s what I wanted deep down. But you know this story has had an effect on you, when walking around in the daylight afterwards feels so foreign.

NOTE: If you’re easily spooked, as I am, then fair warning that this experience can be a bit scary at times. In good news, they let you know that there are absolutely no jump scares, which put my mind at ease during the more intense scenes.

Viola's Room runs at Punchdrunk until 18th August. For tickets and more information, you can follow the link here.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (4*)

Gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Julian Abrams


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