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Viola’s Room by Punchdrunk | Review

Helena Bonham-Carter leads the way in Punchdrunk’s immersive Viola’s Room, a dream like journey of sound, sensation, and wonder.

I’m sitting barefoot in a room with three strangers and it’s completely dark. I’m wearing headphones, and a disembodied voice tells me to “follow the light and stay together”. No, I have not been kidnapped, nor is this part of my top-secret MI6 training on how to cope in hostile territory (and anyway, how do you know about that??). This is the start of the new immersive experience, Viola’s Room, from Punchdrunk, and we had no earthly idea what was in store for us.

Let me take a step back and give you a bit of context. Punchdrunk is an immersive theatre company, known for their completely unique immersive shows. They have been around since 2000. Their show Sleep No More (an immersive Macbeth that took over the entire McKittrick Hotel in New York) has been a massive success since it began in 2011. Sadly, it is closing in September 2024. Viola’s Room is their 11th show in London, their last one being The Burnt City, an epic free-roaming experience featuring incredible scenes from Greek mythology. Their innovative approach has made them pioneers in the immersive theatre scene, often cited as the best immersive theatre company in the world.

And so, back to their latest offering, Viola’s Room. I’m not a fan of spoilery reviews and always do my best not to reveal more than you would find out from a show’s publicity materials, however in this case that doesn’t leave me a lot to tell you as far as explaining what it is. So let’s start with what they tell you and go from there (no spoilers, don’t worry). It’s an experience that is best undertaken barefoot as there is a sensory element to what’s underfoot. If you’re concerned about hygiene, there are anti bacterial foot sprays in the ‘shoes off’ zone, and everyone is requested to use them. Much of the experience takes place in semi darkness, occasionally complete darkness. There’s a maximum of 6 people in each group. You are wearing headphones, and the wonderful voice of Helena Bonham-Carter leads you on your journey, along with a killer soundtrack of original and well known music. The headphones are phenomenal, the sound was so good that at times I had to remove them, to check if the sound was coming from there or from huge speakers nearby! They warn you in advance that you will have to crawl through a small space, but do not be alarmed – it’s well lit in that section and it’s very short (literally one room to the next). For people who cannot crawl – communicate access needs in advance – they will rejig the room so you can go  through easily. There’s another section where it gets narrow, but again it’s short and as someone who gets a bit claustrophobic, I was fine.

What do they not tell you, but I think you should know in advance? There are no performers other than Ms Bonham-Carter in the headphones. I was expecting to see actors at any moment, having visited Burnt City in 2023, but none appeared. It is run entirely via technology, and it is incredible. Also, unlike their previous experiences, it is not free roam – you are led along a specific path, following Helena’s voice, as the story unfolds.

I floated through the 1 hour experience as if in a dream, never knowing what wonder was around the next turn. The experience is captivating, enchanting, at times disquieting, and at others intriguing. It certainly keeps you on your (bare) toes, and I found that I lost all concept of time in there. When it ended, I wasn’t sure if I’d been in for 5 hours or 20 minutes!

Although it is nowhere near the size and complication of Burnt City, which some uber fans visited more than 100 times, it is definitely an experience that I intend to repeat, as there is so much to see at times and the detail and thought that goes into every part of it is simply sublime. Even those of you, like myself, who have been to many immersive shows, will find this wholly unique and enjoyable. It is unlike anything I have done before and I truly cannot wait to go back, preferably with someone I know and can hold onto from time to time, in the darker moments!

I cannot recommend this enough, it is like a visit through Alice’s looking glass, and you will love every minute. Viola’s Room is currently booking through Sunday 18th August, although it will likely run a lot longer, in Punchdrunk’s permanent Woolwich home. Get yourself a ticket as soon as you can, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

To book tickets visit www.punchdrunk.com/work/violas-room

Words Nick Barr

Photography Julian Abrams

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