I recently worked as a performing musician alongside Shunt’s most recent production at The Jetty.
Immersive theatre has become big business since the Shunt collective clambered from the recesses of the live art netherworld in the late ’90s, their improbably successful London Bridge club night and string of singular standalone shows whetting the public appetite for the slick blockbuster offerings of Punchdrunk and ‘You Me Bum Bum Train’.
It’s probably doing Shunt a disservice to say that ‘The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face’ is them coming back to collect some dues. Nonetheless, where 2011’s wildly over-ambitious ‘The Architects’ was a bit of a gruelling swing and a miss, ‘The Boy…’ takes things back to basics. It’s a compact, accessible-ish project that’ll only take up £10 of your money and 45 minutes of your time, and odds are you’ll be left wanting a splash more.
Staged in a complex made of shipping containers on a jetty near The O2 (it’s actually a new arts venture called The Jetty), ‘The Boy…’ is essentially a succession of surreal encounters in a succession of different rooms. I doubt it’s a comparison either party would appreciate, but it comes across as a bit like the mad, crack-addled uncle to the wholesome ‘Bum Bum Train’: each room you step into is a fabulously detailed new world, but one in which everything seems to have gone drastically wrong. Most of the performers you encounter wear horrifying latex masks, at least two sections are actively terrifying, and there’s a concerted effort to make things feel as awkward for the audience as possible.
I’m being rather opaque about the content here: because photos have been banned and the encounters that comprise the show are predicated on surprise, explaining what happens in forensic detail seems against the spirit of the thing.
But I enjoyed ‘The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face’ for its imagination, its restraint, its striking visuals, its sardonic humour, and because I perhaps fancifully saw it as a brilliant send-up of the more anodyne encounter-based theatre that has sprung up in Shunt’s wake. For you it may just be a surreal funhouse full of latex-covered freaks, but there’s a lot to be said for that too, surely?