Could Shunt, those madcap experimentalists whose vast off-site shows tend to confound, have made a straightforward state-of-the-nation play? True, we’re still a long way from Alan Bennett territory in The Architects, but the cruise ship on which we’re cast away stands for a nation – not necessarily Britain – as overtly as the National Trust estate in his People. This is, we’re told, “the trip of a lifetime”.
Onboard, our every whim is catered for. Like bourgeois redcoats, crew-members with dodgy Danish accents run us through parish notices and the “endless amenities”. There are life-drawing classes and bare-knuckle boxing displays, gymkhanas and, for the more adventurous, shark-gutting. Candlelit dinner with a dolphin? Done. “Anything is possible.”
Anything, that is, except disembarking or changing course. On such overarching decisions, we’re at the mercy of the ship’s proprietors back on shore; a clan of gauche Kardashian overlords that appear in video transmissions, sprawled over each other in satin gowns and skin-tight leopard-print, binging on bubbly and fried chicken. (One gold AK-47 and they could be the Husseins.) Essentially, it’s a three-tier hierarchy. The wealthy call the shots and politicians – sorry, crew-members – keep us lowly passengers content and co-operative with toyworld freedoms and responsibilities.
All this comes wrapped in the Minotaur myth. We reach the ship’s cabaret hall – a sumptuous art-deco design, presumably by Lizzie Clachan – through a featureless plywood labyrinth and leave it, hastily evacuated, when the ship’s owners unleash some unidentified monster, Big Boy. In Pablo Meneu and Ana Perez de Manuel’s spectacular aerial sequence – the best I’ve ever seen – crew-members look on horrified at their imperilled children, without attempting to intervene.
Yet, at base, there’s a simple, unrevelatory take-home moral: that we haven’t the freedoms we would like to think. That is adorned with more slippery ideas about architecture, simulation and propaganda, but you do feel somewhat short-changed, not least by the intentionally anti-climatic ending.
Nonetheless, this is characteristically flavourful stuff from a company with genuine visual flair and comic panache. The constant stream of patronising announcements (“Er. Has anybody lost a finger?”) and party games, punctuated by snap black-outs, is both perfectly Pythonesque and disconcertingly Ballardian, while the three-piece house band brings a party atmosphere that makes this a corking night out. It will only get better as, for Shunt, the work never stops.