“When I say ‘run’, we run”
Despite being a big Doctor Who fan and having a few days leave booked up in the North-West to visit family and become a godfather to the lovely Samuel Luke, I hadn’t intended to go and see The Crash of the Elysium, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s take on the long-running BBC sci-fi phenomenon. It is a family show, designed for kids aged 6-12 and when first announced, unaccompanied adults were no being let in. But more importantly, my first Punchdrunk experience, The Duchess of Malfi last year, was distinctly underwhelming and so there wasn’t quite the must-see aspect to this, even once a set of evening performances for adults were hastily added. A serendipitous alignment of some esteemed company making the trip possessing a spare ticket and me having a free night (plus absolutely no willpower to resist in the end!) combined to get us along to MediaCity near the Lowry complex in Salford for a Saturday night of Time Lord-related antics but with no sofa to hide behind…
Written by Tom MacRae, a scriptwriter from the Doctor Who team, the story starts with the group, 12 or so of us, being invited to look at an exhibition about the mysterious disappearance of the 19th Century steamship the Elysium, but there’s barely time to look at the exhibits before SAS-type troops burst into the room, declaring an alien spaceship has crash-landed and we’re all needed to help the investigation. A brief military training exercise once we’ve all suited up in decontamination suits and protective masks sees us assigned numbers and roles within teams and then the serious business of alien investigation is started.
Further details are classified under the Military Secrets Act (not really, but there’s so much joy in the unexpected and not knowing who the villains were made their reveal all the more scintillatingly terrifying!) but it is not saying too much to declare The Crash of the Elysium an undoubted triumph. With the focus squarely on keeping young minds engaged, Punchdrunk have created the best kind of exhilarating adventure, running at breakneck speed for just under an hour with sensory thrills at every corner as Matt Smith’s under-peril Doctor advises us as best he can with a series of short video messages, but leaving much to be solved by ourselves.
Felix Barrett’s direction keeps things moving at a very pretty pace, we’re constantly running urgently around the complex, through a set of beautifully realised locations, even as the journey takes an unexpected turn in time and space, remaining richly detailed whether we’re hurtling through, stopping to look for clues or winding our way through disconcertingly tricksy corridors. The atmosphere is well-balanced, the creepiness ever-present veering into frankly terrifying at one point and in true Doctor Who-style, nothing is quite as easy as it seems leading to a great final twist.
A huge amount of the show’s success is down to the skill of the performers, in our case Danny Millar and Kat McGarr as Captain Solomon and Corporal Albright who led our particular team, Alpha Unit, through the perilous trip, both clearly skilled at guiding without domineering and eliciting the right responses from new recruits with the right level of warmth mixed into their military demeanour and able to spark brilliantly off the smallest of things, their reactions during our training sessions were often hilarious.
In some ways, the show is Teflon-coated, immune from any real criticism, as all the minor complaints that we struggled to come up with on the way back into Manchester city centre could be simply deflected by remembering it was designed for children. There’s an awful lot of crouching down which didn’t agree with the creaking joints of much of our team, there’s a few moments where extra scares and creepiness could have been added to ratchet up the tension even further and I would have liked more interactivity, more chances to find answers for ourselves as is done earlier on within the show itself, rather than relying on previous knowledge of Doctor Who.
But ultimately, all of these points are about making it more adult-friendly and so rather missing the point: I’m pretty confident the 6-12 year old in me would have adored this show just as much as the 29 (plus 3) year old version of me did and in some ways I do wish I had been able to go with my niece and really experience the show through her eyes, as originally intended. On a final note, it seems a shame that it takes designing a show for younger minds to remind Punchdrunk of the strength of narrative clarity, something that was severely lacking in The Duchess of Malfi and something that needs to be preserved if there is a story to be followed, even in the most immersive of theatre experiences. If you have the chance, whether with child or not, then do snap up any remaining tickets and get along to this and surrender to the joy of just becoming a child for an hour: theatre is rarely this much fun!