The lift doors open. I feel my way down a corridor. It’s dark, and the mask over my face impedes my vision. Suddenly I stumble out into a vast room, with a knot of masked spectators at one end. What are they watching so intently?
I rush over to see a hunky cowboy in a Stetson, dancing on and over a park bench with two women, alternatively sisterly and bitchy as they compete for his favour. Their pas de trois continues for a few tense minutes – who will he end up with? – before the women go off together instead, and the cowboy is whisked off to a bar by a bearded drag queen in a shimmering scarlet dress who lip-synchs to the Shangri-Las’ I Can Never Go Home Any More.
And then the night starts to get really weird.
Welcome to Temple Studios, a vast film set created by immersive theatre company Punchdrunk across four storeys of the old Post Sorting Office by Paddington Station, for their new show The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. One among 600 masked audience members free to wander at will through a hundred different rooms, all painstakingly decked out with props, books and notes, you feel like a ghost: silent, invisible to the actors except in rare moments when, thrillingly and transgressively, a veil seems to part and they gaze directly into a spectator’s eyes, noticing them for the first time.
On the night I went the spectator next to me was desperately hugged by an actress who had just committed an unspeakable crime; on a different floor, inside a tent, I found an audience member sponging down a dancer’s naked torso; elsewhere, a doctor who had just injected himself with heroin picked out a young masked girl, beckoned her into a small room, and locked the door behind them. The stifling heat, with sweat running down your face from the mask, adds to the claustrophobic sexual tension generated by multiple scenes of lust and infidelity, like so many fragments of a broken dressing-room mirror.
Initially the jumbled, elliptical narrative is disorientating, until your imagination starts to fill in the gaps. There is little or no dialogue, as Punchdrunk believe that emotions can be expressed on a grander scale through dance – which is, after all, the vertical expression of horizontal desire.
What does gnaw at you is FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. My first decision was to follow the cowboy and the drag queen – but what if I had followed the girls? What happened next to them? You often feel that, whatever is going on in front of you, on another floor, in another room, there might be something more interesting still.
There’s only one remedy: go again, on another night. Punchdrunk’s New York production, Sleep No More, which I saw last year, was meant to run for just six weeks but is still playing two and a half years later; fans return dozens of times, and swap notes on the most exciting rooms and actors to follow. The Drowned Man is, in my opinion, even more fun and accessible, the space is twice as big at 200,000 square feet, and the tickets (£39.50) cost half as much.
There is still good availability on dates, but trust me: there won’t be for much longer. It is big, and it is clever.
My 2010 interview with Punchdrunk’s founders in The Times, for those with a subscription, is here.