Shunt is often described as a company of hits and misses: a ticket that might buy you an hour of wildly thought-provoking delirium – or, just as likely, a wasted trek to an out-of-the-way, repurposed space that leaves you feeling somehow duped. It’s not that productions vary greatly – the core of the company’s work is an unvarying mesh of immersion, interaction and disorientation techniques. But throughout Shunt’s 16-year history, audiences have remained consistently inconsistent in their responses: they are theatrical pioneers to some, over-funded amateurs to others. This latest production is unlikely to produce any clearer consensus.
The Boy Who Climbed Out of His Face is a walk-through performance that takes place inside shipping containers on the Greenwich Jetty on the south bank of the Thames. The publicity is opaque: foreboding passages lifted from The Water Babies and Heart of Darkness and a warning to those susceptible to panic attacks and phobias to stay away. The exact nature of Kingsley and Conrad’s contribution remains unclear, the reason for the warnings less so – Shunt has created a claustrophobic labyrinth in which you feel a compass needle would struggle to find north.
The sense of disorientation heightens as you progress through the space: secret doors slide open, walls collapse, a whirring lift manages to capture the illusion both of movement and the intense social awkwardness of strangers waiting silently for their floor. When it is dark, the darkness is of such a rare completeness that it takes you by surprise, and it is hard to edge out the feeling that you are trapped inside a three-tonne steel box and somehow totally alone.
But the illusion is shattered when performers become involved – they can’t match the surroundings. In each room, rubbery, masked faces implore you to respond to them with something other than embarrassment. One actor stumbles with gross sensuality around a grubby nightclub, cajoling the audience into absurdist games, another demands assistance in his Sisyphean endeavour of scooping up more bottles than he can carry. Performers are alone, with no one to play off other than their transient spectators, and nothing is done to soften the awkward, distinctly unengaging nature of these encounters. It was never going to be easy to seduce a group of strangers into feeling anything other than silly when asking them with forbidding intensity: “Are you sure you want to go on? You know you can’t turn back!”
Shunt’s uncompromising approach suggests a company that has lost track of – or chosen to disregard – the difference between the kind of immersive experience that is stimulating to perform, and the kind that might actually work for an audience.