dreamthinkspeak: Absent

Theatre, Off-West End
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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A haunting theatrical installation from Dreamthinkspeak.

Out with the old, in with the new: the latest victim in London’s trend for bulldozing old buildings and replacing them with high-rise hotels and glass-fronted flats is Shoreditch Town Hall. It has been transformed into a bustling hotel with a swanky bar and an army of purple waistcoated staff to help with check-in. But just before you start a petition: the hotel is the work of site-responsive theatre pioneers Dreamthinkspeak, created for their latest piece ‘Absent’.

Riffing on the true tale of the Duchess of Argyll, who checked into a London hotel in 1978 and was thrown out penniless years later, ‘Absent’ is a journey through the basement of the building. You travel through a warren of immaculately constructed hotel rooms – some crumbling with a faded glamour, others bland corporate spaces.

Though you’re immersed in the world of the piece, Dreamthinkspeak’s work is not like Punchdrunk’s, where there are usually lots of actors. ‘Absent’ is a sort of labyrinth, a series of beautiful, meticulously put together installations and film projections that hint at a plot but let the audience create their own take.

From the moment you’re led into one of the new bedrooms on a tour, you’re essentially left to find your own way through. There are a few secret doors to discover – watch out for the one through the wardrobe – and as you move through the rooms, tiny doll-house replicas adorn the walls. They are what you’re about to see but in miniature, right down to the smallest scrap of paper discarded on the mantelpiece.

The many looping film projections show the duchess young and happy then older, drunk and unhappy. The one thing the rooms have in common is that she is in none of them. She has checked out: the film projections are the memories of her, haunting the spaces she once lived.

There’s a lot of layers to ‘Absent’: it’s about the superficial happiness we find in objects and money; our worrying need for development and about the way we’re losing old-school charm to identikit, flat-pack spaces. But several of the rooms are a little disappointing – they are literally just empty basement spaces with some moody lighting. At times, it feels sparse and repetitive. Nonetheless, the rooms which do work are breathtakingly detailed – they are subtle, unnerving and surreal reminders of life’s impermanence.

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