Wednesday, 3 June 2015

I check into a preview of Heartbreak Hotel at The Jetty

Yesterday I tried out a new venue (to me at any rate), The Jetty, which is set along the River Thames, near North Greenwich tube, a five minute walk from the Dome.

Heartbreak Hotel is immersively set in a hotel, and after getting our check-in rooms (mine was 101), we made our way into the hotel lobby complete with bar and an area for snacks. Some of tables have telephones and it is possible to chatter to hotel staff on these house phones.
Then, at the appointed time, along with others, I was shown to my room, whose number 101 didn't escape me. Others left for another area and room 666.

Being a heartbreak hotel, we were led along a dingy corridor, before meeting an inspirational leader from A.C.H.E. who explained to us that whatever our problems were, we'd come out of the experience feeling better. I looked at the peeling wallpaper in the corridor and smiled as a second inspirationalist started talking to us from a jittery recording on a small television monitor, before about ten of us were led into one of the dimly-lit rooms.

It was one of those hotel-rooms that would do in an emergency, if you were, say, escaping from the law, or had all your money stolen. Although, it's fair to say that there were a couple of champagne flutes on one of the shelves.

And so the action started, as a couple entered the room, with the woman taking a similarly negative view of this rather over-used location. They were the first of some partly lost souls we met during the evening, whose all-too-human narratives and experiences overlapped in various ways.

I won't describe plot, except to say that I discovered we were on a sort of Möbius loop of a storyline, which played out across the various rooms we visited.
This was the first performance night for the show, and there were a few unintentionally rough edges. There was some clever atmosphere, with ghosts in the walls and a point where the connection from one room to another was via the wardrobes (although it should be said it was a simpler process than a Punchdrunk wardrobe in similar circumstances).

In some immersive productions, the audience can self select their routes around the environment. For Heartbreak Hotel, there was a predefined 'run on rails' routing from scene to scene, so once through the wardrobe, for example, there was no going back.

Oh yes, and being a hotel, with lots of bedrooms, one has to expect that there might be all manner of things occurring behind the closed doors. Oh yes. The trailer gives a few clues.

Being the preview, we witnessed a couple of glitches. In one scene a bed collapsed. Whilst dramatic, judging from the sound of breaking timber, I'm not sure that it was supposed to and the returning guest seemed to use superhuman effort to attempt to push it back together for the next version of that scene.

In another area, the sequencing stalled. We were in a large, dilapidated, communal tiled bathroom and had watched a variety of scenes including one where cocaine was chopped as two of the guests swapped remarks about their lives. Unfortunately, our extraction from this particular segment didn't occur and we watched it all again, except that the fella with the coke couldn't find it the second time causing some slightly ragged sequencing.

After the second playing of the segment (which also featured others passing through the room, including a mysterious and slightly panicked looking bell-hop), we were fast-forwarded through another distorted room, along a beach and up a stairway to what became outdoors at the end of the jetty.

Here we heard about the impact of the programme we'd been experiencing, its personal tailoring and a few words from a rebellious hotel-maid who had made it through the all of the steps.

What did I think of it? I wanted it to work, and willed it to be successful, but at the moment there are teething problems. Most of this is a matter of tightening the bolts on what I assume is still a preview.

I'll constructively mention a few things here, because it may help the production.
  • The hotel-like greeting at the ticketing works well and starts the mood.
  • The wind whipping against the structure of the Jetty creates a fairly unique ambience ideally suited to a Heartbreak Hotel.
  • The bar area needs sorting out. Not taking cash was a strange situation, even for a heartbreak hotel. The payment card machines were also erratic, and not in a good way.
  • The waiting time at the beginning could be made into more of the immersion. A few simple actions built into the pre-start could re-inforce the experience. Guests flamboyantly arriving, business with baggage, use of the phones. Some corny customer protocols like a hotel would improve this too and could ice-break the guests.
  • The confidence and assertion of the minor characters leading people around needs to be stronger. The guests are intentionally confused anyway, when being marshalled into 'blocks' to be moved into rooms and this could be slicker.
  • There needs to be some way to check that groups of guests don't get stranded (like we were) and effectively see the same long segment twice. Easiest is perhaps to ensure one group has entirely left before another one enters.
  • Scenes need a recovery mode, so that if something goes wrong, there is a way to reset. Maybe that just comes with time and practice of the scene?
  • Voice projection. Mostly this worked well, although there were a couple of times after things had apparently failed, when the voices became quiet, more as if the characters were unsure of their lines rather than as something done for dramatic effect. This can lose the energy of the production.
I realise that some of the above list could come across as negative. It's not intended to be; in the spirit of the show, as I said earlier, I'm willing it to be successful.

It takes a courage and ingenuity to try something as logistically challenging and I wish the cast, crew and staff every success as they hone this run, which lasts until August, I believe.

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