Review – Stovepipe, HighTide/Bush/NT

Time has not been kind to the West 12 shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush. With the brand new £1.6bn Westfield Shopping Epicentre across the road, West 12 is left as home to Argos, Morrisons, JD Sports and Wetherspoons . And, as of a few weeks ago, a new indoor promenade theatre performance.

Stovepipe is a HighTide production (they of the rather fine arts festival), in collaboration with the NT and the Bush, so has an extremely find pedigree. Taking over the basement of the West 12, the production guides the audience through a montage of different landscapes in the Middle East, from five star hotels to desert roads to brothels to Green Zone bars to Jordanian convention centres, as they follow the efforts of a British mercenary to locate his kidnapped friend.

It’s an interesting venue in which to play out an interesting idea. The performers are close and the constant movement certainly keeps the audience on its toes; the conceit of having the audience follow performers around allows a range of sets and ideas which would be impossible (or impossibly clunky) to play out on a proscenium stage with the audience safely ensconced in their dark seats.

Despite this, it is also a production which is hopelessly muddled. There is no clear role for the audience and no continuity in the way in which we are supposed to respond: one moment we are delegates at a conference, being asked to interact with actors and complete questionnaires; the next we are silent observers on a scene in which could only take place in private.

It’s inevitable that Stovepipe will be compared with the gold-standard of promenade theatre: that of Punchdrunk, who brought us Masque of the Red Death and Faust. The comparisons are unfair, since the Punchdrunk work was much more about experience than narrative, but what they always managed to do was to make the production values incredibly high, never hiding behind the constraints of a venue. The same cannot be said of Stovepipe: we see an office with computers but no keyboards; we hear guns which sound plastic when they are dropped on the floor; five star hotel rooms do not feel like five star hotel rooms. Minor niggles, perhaps, but in a production which seems premised on immersiveness for the audience, these little details – which Punchdrunk do so superbly well – are missed.

But the main problem with Stovepipe is the plot, which feels like an afterthought. For such a short play it’s pointlessly convoluted: the main event which starts the play, a roadside ambush, is stylishly executed but isn’t clear enough as to its position in the narrative; we spend ten minutes finding out about an American journalist who then completely disappears from the plot except for one pointless cameo at the end; it is never quite clear who any one of the actors is supposed to be portraying or at what point in the story; and the play seems to have no message, no thesis, no driving force behind it.

Site-specific and promenade theatre can be superb when a venue is adapted to tell a story which would stand up in its own right; in the case of Stovepipe, it too often feels like a flimsy story has been created to fit an interesting venue.

Tickets from the National.