REVIEW: The Burnt City by Punchdrunk

February 10, 2023

The Burnt City


Cartridge Place, Woolwich

Review:  Eric Page

This was my second visit to thrilling promenade performance The Burnt City, having an almost completely different set of experiences in this deep slow burner of a show which builds effortlessly to a dark hypnotic climax.  ( you can read my first review here)

We started in the bar this time, each of us given a playing card.  The louche gender-fluid host, up for some sparking repartee and dripping with camp cant chooses groups by the suite of card you hold, we’re all split up, then it’s on in to the show. Give yourself up to this, embrace the chaos, float, bump and churn with the action, you’ll never see it all anyway, so don’t worry or try and attempt to.


My companion and I were separated but that’s ok and part of the experience, I spent most of my time exploring Troy, struggling to locate Greece but also happy with what I was doing, wandering around from room to room, consciously making a chose to move into spaces without people, to allow me to explore. Coming across random dramatic scenes. My favourite parts of this experience were incongruous encounters with the cast and their bizarre, intense interactions with each other, witnessed close up by me.

Photo: Julian-Abrams.

I met a woman who had been ten times, following a different thread each time, having a different experience, she had followed key protagonists, stayed in once place, wandered aimlessly, checked out every space thematically, leaping from key actor to key actor to follow a story, even took a compass and stopwatch, but it’s analogous however you approach it: you see what you come across, you build your narrative from the intensive moments you catch sight of.  Inspired by Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba, The Burnt City transports the greatest of Greek tragedies to this sprawling neon metropolis.

Learn more of the stories being played out here 

Photo: Julian-Abrams.

I enjoyed the stuffed owls behind the dry-cleaning cupboard, the bedroom of Athene; the hidden and overt references are legion, fun, teasing, knowing and sly, level upon level of references, history, art, and mythology.  The level of detail is amazing, and the anachronistic stuff fits the event. It’s a filmic experience along with careful lightning, it’s not easy to create a muted flickering strip light, to get the lighting this right – not bright enough to fully  illuminate but not so dark as to be dangerous. This lighting was a sophisticated tour de force and cleverly executed. Small details made me smile, the set inviting exploration, every drawer opened, and door tried.

Photo: Julian-Abrams.

The soundscape also working with the immense set, creating atmosphere and a dreamlike quality. Setting it in the 1940’s adds to the suggestion of past, being dead and being part of an underworld, the masks adding the feeling of being a spectre. The repetition of the scenes during the night, when come across, offer a feeling of people condemned to repeat over and over again in their lives, until they’ve learned a life/death lesson.  There’s lots of washing involved, hints perhaps of ritual and the importance of systemic ritual in ancient cultures.  Punchdrunk have picked up and played with potent symbols.

Having some strong female leads allows a re-balance of some of the patriarchal nonsense of ancient myths and history, Euripides is probably the most female friendly playwright of the ancient world and Punchdrunk have picked up on this and the female leads have agency in their own right,  this gives you the feeling that women are not just victims even when they’re being sacrificed.

Photo: Julian-Abrams.

My companion, when we found each other in the bar talked of crawling through a tunnel on sand on her belly viewing spooky shrines as she went, thrilled at the opportunities presented. Enjoying looking in every mirror they passed, reminding themselves of their other-worldliness.

Punchdrunk do both huge spectacular dramatic moments and master the minutia.    Most of the evening I was exploring on my own, without a crowd or other people, then finding myself joined by one of the protagonists, in a 1950’s kitchen, sitting doing a jigsaw with a filled up ashtray and glasses left; like a Marie Celeste. Alone, contemplating myself, minding my own business, when I was joined by a great hulking bloke with blood on his face and a women who seemed desperate for a drink I have no idea of who they were or what they were doing, but the effect was that I was instantly embroiled in the action.  A snapshot in time, being in a forgotten memory, the whole of Burnt City is very dream like.

Photo: Julian-Abrams.

I was pleased we saw the finale this time, a lot of the characters there, rolling along the catwalk, all in a long line of twisting, half alive and half dead, like people tumbling out of hell, then they roll down the stairs and form a circle, and then they continue to circle, as the music gets louder and louder shifting out techno drone into an exalted choral crescendo. It really feels like an ending, a resolution, like the separate strands of story and character are brought together with an underlying desperation, alive or dead. Ending with one person in the middle with snow falling on her, everyone else fallen, we stood on the balcony looking down. Fallen. Fallen…

Photo: Julian-Abrams.

I was moved by the experience, it was emotive and evocative, and the breadth of the experience allows you to interpret it how you like. I’d left feeling that I’d been shifted into a different reality, the masks allowing you largesse in exploring, becoming mute chorus, observing the action, but enabling a weird power of semi-invisibility or silent intimate observeration.

The bar is an excellent refreshing space, particularly for people who don’t go to Queer bars as the performance is very Queer and very funny, the only funny part of the show unless crepuscular irony gets you giggling, the Bar performers pumping out a modern take on the KitKat Clubs.  The performers are amusing, engaging, and I was dying for a sit down and a drink after wandering around for hours, having such fun entertainment was a bonus.

It’s  a memorable experience, you will remember it. They’re not afraid of shade are PunchDrunk, in any way means or form.

With new cast members Punchdrunk continue to offer one of the most fascinating, interesting, and memorable ‘immersive’ events currently available and are strongly recommended as a creative experience to savour.

Booking is extended to September 2023.  With a new prelude for VIP ticket holders for all performances.

Tickets range from £45 to £88 for a solid three-hour show, learn more  or book here

Punchdrunk has teamed up with TodayTix, the digital gateway to theatre and culture, to bring audiences £25 tickets for every performance available through their Lottery,  with the
draws taking place Wednesdays. Tickets are bookable for the week ahead and available in pairs. To enter for a chance to win tickets, simply download the TodayTix app.