The Crash Of The Elysium

12:01 pm in Featured, Reviews by EVNT

Punchdrunk’s Doctor Who experience, The Crash of the Elysium, returned for the Cultural Olympiad but was relocated from Manchester – where it was part of the Manchester International Festival – to the slightly unlikely town of Ipswich. It was brought there in partnership with the New Wolsely theatre but located a few hundred metres down the road in a series of marquees and cabins outside the Crown Pools swimming centre.

We registered and took our places in the first tent with the twenty other people who were to become Alpha Team with us. First we were led into a museum gallery which held an exhibition of the ship the Elysium – built just down the road in 1818. The curator of the museum was just starting to run through a wonderfully dry slideshow of the ship’s history when the opposite door crashed open and two soldiers burst in and shouted for us to follow them at the double.

I missed exactly what the emergency was but once we had suited up into our dust- protectors and face-masks we were led into a hangar and the side of a crashed alien ship that we were to explore. The soldiers numbered us off and split us into three teams for the mission – data, technical and patrol. Each team was instructed to explore the area, to retrieve the information needed and to activate a set of monitors that relayed a message from the Doctor (the most recent Matt Smith incarnation thereof).

Surprisingly enough he was in trouble and needed our help to destroy the Tardis so that it didn’t fall into enemy hands. We then moved into the ship itself where we were warned about the supposedly disabled security system – a series of yellow rubber suited slumped figures at least one of which looked like it might contain a human body and could come alive at any second. We found the required information and key and escaped into the next room without incident, taking military precautions as we went before the real threat exposed itself and started following us – life-size stone gargoyles that could only change position when you weren’t looking at them. When the lights flickered out they would move closer to you with increasingly threatening gestures, like a nightmarish game of Mr Wolf (appropriately enough for fans of the series).

After a few search and manoeuvres and ensuing gargoyle chases we suddenly emerged into a very different world – a nineteenth century circus – and were greeted by a young girl who revealed herself to be one of the Doctor’s former assistants. She taught us to charge up the key we had found with enough energy to release the tardis and sent it to the Doctor.

We then moved through into a chamber with different symbols from arcane human history –Aztec, Egyptian, Hindu etc – and a set of curtains under each hiding a shrunken human head and the Tardis. We unlocked the police-box fronted space-ship and then attempted to escape the final onslaught of gargoyles through a mirror-maze that led to another alien control chamber that somehow provided a route back to the 21st century and a thank you message from the Doctor that we had disobeyed his instructions to destroy the Tardis (and therefore him).

Punchdrunk are the premier immersive theatre producers in the UK and US (dare we say ‘world’?) and this experience was as impressive as you would expect in its atmosphere and world-creation – particularly it’s alternately claustrophobic and expansive set-design and the powerfully filmic use of music and sound effects. What they are only recently starting to do – and consequently what they are somewhat less adept at – is adding interactivity and allowing the audience to be protagonists rather than spectators. As a result a genuine sense of urgency – and with it suspense and emotional buy-in – was somehow missing. As was any real horror. The gargoyles were actually statues and, despite their skillful and lifelike manipulation, they weren’t convincing up close.

The caveat with this review is that the show has been designed for children, so this was presumably a very deliberate decision not to over-whelm them and to provide achievable challenges. But the simple fact is that Doctor Who IS scary, and children still watch and enjoy it. And what seems to me to be the entire premise of the show -that random things come to life and start chasing you in a predictable but unrelenting way – is the perfect trope for a brilliant pervasive experience. This was a fantastic production and I am sure that for children it was mind-blowing. But I am also sure they would have
loved it even more if the life-sized security suit slumped in the finale mirror maze had slowly animated and started chasing them. And if they had felt that there was enough of a challenge in there to show their true worth and to get picked by the Doctor as his next companion…