Review – Masque of the Red Death (Punchdrunk, National Theatre) at Battersea Arts Centre

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Thank you, Punchdrunk, for saving the West End Whingers the bother of writing a review. What a lot of people don’t realise is that whinging is a very time-consuming business: crafting and honing our reviews can take anywhere up to 9 minutes. But this was much faster.

Punchdrunk, you may recall, put together Faust last year in conjunction with the National Theatre. On that occasion it took place in an archive warehouse in the East End. Now they have taken over Battersea Arts Centre to present Edgar Allen Poe‘s The Masque of the Red Death.

Thankfully, it’s basically the same thing, so we can just repeat repeat the Faust review with some amendments and some deletions:

One of the benefits of Punchdrunk’s “audience empowerment” policy is that you can pop into the bar for a drink and a break whenever and as often as you like.

The downside is there’s a lot of work involved wandering around five floors of the condemned factory site Battersea Arts Centre to track down the action which is scattered around and moves about the site.

But it’s well worth the effort. The sets are splendid again, the darkness again atmospheric and the action again engaging. So engaging, in fact, that Andrew found himself called upon to take part in the action on two occasions.

It’s an extraordinary experience again and difficult to say more without spoiling it unless you saw Faust in which case you don’t really need to go, but follow our top tips and you’ll have a great time.

Our top tips

  • Don’t go in a group – you will again find it impossible to keep together (you will find out why!)
  • If you do go in a group, arrange to meet (in the bar, obviously) at a certain time.
  • Wear distinctive clothing. But not, as in Andrew’s case, a tutu.
  • Forget about the story again . It’s a bit of a red herring again and you would have great difficulty finding all the elements, let alone seeing them in the right order again.
  • Follow the noise again . If it’s quiet where you are, go elsewhere.
  • Wear sensible shoes again. Phil found it very difficult in his stilettos.
  • Don’t take a bag; there’s no cloakroom again. Shame on you BAC.
  • Don’t be afraid to open doors and be nosy again.
  • Contact lenses would again be preferable to glasses if you still wear them.
  • Be in the basement at 8.15 or 9.45 for the finale. (The whole thing is played twice) Stay until about 9.45-10.00 for the finale. In fact, you will find it difficult to leave.
  • If, like Andrew, you start to feel claustrophobic and do want to leave before the end don’t ask one of the “actors” guarding the doors the way out, they won’t speak to you but gesture towards an exit; Andrew lost his rag (he carries it with him everywhere) demanding, “Please, don’t mime at me, just tell me where the exit is!”
  • There’s a real cat.
  • There’s a little room where you can take your mask off and a woman reads you the first few paragraphs of “The Oblong Box” but not the whole thing. Phil laughed a lot but eventually the woman nodded off (as Phil so often does in Andrew’s company).
  • The undoubted highlight was the mind-reading act which went horribly wrong when they had the misfortune to alight on Phil as the subject. Failing to locate – never mind read – Phil’s mind was, of course, an ambition on a scale Punchdrunk had failed to plan for and it all went horribly wrong.
  • Lovely to see one of the Stanleys from The Day Trip again.
  • Smuggle a bottle of red wine in your bag (that’ll teach them not to provide a cloakroom) – they ran out of red wine by 9pm, but that was understandable really, as the Whingers spent an awful long time in the bar.
  • Helen Smith‘s daughter contributed to the props in the perfumery and they stole the show in our opinion.
  • Don’t go if you really, really enjoyed Faust on the basis that it was so different and fresh and amazing and you had never seen anything like it because this is basically more of the same.
  • Don’t be put off by our list of top tips.

42 Responses to “Review – Masque of the Red Death (Punchdrunk, National Theatre) at Battersea Arts Centre”

  1. daveonthego Says:

    Oh I loved it. But then I missed Faust. I loved the Victorian music hall acts and today have a song about a great big saw coming closer and closer and closer and going round in my head like the worst ear worm ever. Everyone has a different experience. I never found the cloak room (you are given a cloak), spent a lovely time by the fireside with the little black cat playing with my hand, sipped on an absinthe, had my mind read and my jacket guessed at, participated in a Seance, bumped my head coming out of a vault under the stairs and ferreted in every dark nook and cranny of the Battersea Arts Center to mention just half of it. The finale is spectacular and ingenious and the actors/action great to watch or eavesdrop on. This site specific performance or promenade stuff is quite the flavour du jour. I longed to be performing myself and then realised I was. I might just do it again.

  2. Sean Says:

    I was frightened, I laughed, I got lost. Having seen Faust, I had some idea was to expect – I was wrong. Expect the unexpected. Yes, you do have to work during the show – in my view, much better than sitting uncomfortably waiting for the interval as in most shows. I was at the show for 3 and a half hours, usually I find 30 minutes a drain. I won’t even try to explain what I saw – it will probably be different for every person who sees the show. I was like “Pockets of Experiences”. For me – it a must see.

  3. Helen Smith Says:

    There were other rooms to explore, beyond that enchanting perfumery?

  4. Kat Says:

    I really can’t wait to see this…

  5. Josh Says:

    I loved it, so good for an early preview!!! I should’ve stayed in the music hall all night – at least an hour i think!
    This is previews right? Sounds like Andrew above is a very lazy reviewer to me…poor fella should prob stop going to the theatre if it’s all so repetitive…x

  6. westendwhinger Says:

    No Josh, it’s Andrew who is repetitive. He also gets confused and disorientated very easily, especially after 2 hours in the bar. He’s also very bitter that he didn’t take part in the music hall act as much as Phil, but without the mask on his face it was just too much for the performers. I tried to lose him, I really did, but he just kept hanging on to the hem of my cape.

  7. Josh Says:

    LOL…love your work…

  8. Work? I don’t think it’s ever been called that before. But thanks, Josh.

  9. Josh Says:

    Name thief 😦

  10. Sam London Says:

    Loved this last Saturday. But of course when I met up with my partner we’d both seen different scenes. Any tips on the best place to start? Or the best character to follow?
    What happens to Roderick Usher (“Mr Smith”) after he’s dragged out of the theatre when the mindreading goes wrong? The bowler hatted ones stop you following them backstage.
    And I wanted to catch the girl who climbs out of the crypt. How early does that happen? And did anyone find the secret bar? Am going again in December and thought it would be fun to hit the stuff I missed.

  11. You have outdone yourselves – funniest review i have read in yonks.

  12. Immy Says:

    Just got back an hour ago & still buzzing. Feel like I’ve been away for 3 weeks, can’t believe it was 3 hours. I absolutely LOVED it. Oh and you’ll be pleased to hear BAC got their act together & now have a cloakroom. Think we covered pretty much every area and saw the wedding, witnessed the feast, joined the seance, stroked the cat, gawped at the couple fighting and her getting stuffed in a coffin. Found the library for relaxing Jackanory moment. Wore my cape with pride. So impressed with the eerie array of masked faces, quite spooky and reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut. Drank wine in the music hall and loved the finale. No sign of any mindreader though. But hell, I discovered heaps and it was a great night. Feels like a strange dream already. You simply have to go! Enjoy…

  13. Daniel Mudford Says:

    More sultry and claustrophobic than Faust, The Masque was a great Saturday night out in another world/century. No idea what narrative/dramatic elements there were, it’s just brilliant to be immersed in Punchdrunk’s worl.

    Having been to Faust I was ‘braver’ this time and my branching off, exploring dark corridors and empty rooms was well rewarded by two ‘special’ experiences that diverted me from the main activities. A demented scullery maid whispering a story and a ten-minute diversion being blindfolded and given instructions via headphones; I fell privilged and not a little unnerved. At least I think they were actors…

  14. quixoticfruit Says:

    Actually, there is a cloakroom, but you have to use the correct entrance on Theatre Street rather than the main entrance (unlike most of the numpties who stand there for half an hour before the start before being told that they are in the wrong place). I felt that there was less detail than in Faust – no rewards for looking in cupboards and drawers this time – and the finale was underwhelming, but I still enjoyed it overall. Especially fun if you’re familiar with Poe’s work and can spot stories.

  15. […] It’s great fun. See Whinger’s review and comments and Lyn Gardner’s review. But you have to be active and engaged. I’ve tried to think about why […]

  16. Stu_n Says:

    There is a cloakroom; ask to check your stuff at the entrance and they’ll give you a crate, then you can pick it up by the back door when you leave. It’s free, too.

  17. Thanks all. As you can imagine, the Whingers are thrilled that this conversation has become almost entirely preoccupied about whether there was or wasn’t a cloakroom at Masque of the Red Death.

    Now, as you will know, “facts are not our forte” but having raised the question, we did feel some obligation to settling the matter once and for all.

    There is evidence to support the contention that there is now a cloakroom as testified by various witnesses above. But the question is “Was there always a cloakroom?”

    Andrew has gone to the extraordinary length of contacting the Battersea Arts Centre to request confirmation that although there is now a cloakroom, there wasn’t one when the Whingers went.

    They declined to be interviewed, but they did issue this statement:

    “You are (of course) correct. When you came during the previews there was no cloakroom.”

    So there you have it.

  18. Kat Says:

    I am HEARTBROKEN by the amount I missed! I knew something ghastly must be happening in that grave but was far too freaked out to hang around and find out. That aside it was the most exhilirating experience I’ve had in an age and every little bit I found out added to the deliciousness of the evening. The acting and performances were stunning, obv. I just wish there was a walkthrough now so I can find out where everything was – Immy, you clearly had an amazing case of RPRT!

  19. Lizzie G Says:

    Wow and wow again. What an experience. . The wine bar’s spooky but worth a visit (next dor to the perfume shop). Bob-Bon will maybe tell you a story and offer you wine. The dancers/acrobats do things that the human body was surely never meant to do but, by god, they’re amazing. The dressing room behind the Music Hall is a joy. The finale is amazing.
    There were bits I’m glad I missed (I don’t do premature burial stuff!) but I’m going again on 8 Dec as I missed lots of other bits. Go and see it and be part of the show.

  20. Kath A Says:

    I wish I’d read these reviews before going, because I feel I missed out. At the start, my party obediently obeyed instructions to separate and wave goodbye to each other. Thereafter my overwhelming sensation was of feeling trapped and wondering how and when they were going to let us out again. In fact my mum tells me she felt so disempowered and claustrophobic she freaked out and insisted that one of the silent ushers take her to the exit. This was no more profound an experience than being trapped in a lift for 3 hours. Perhaps if we’d understood the parameters a bit better we would have been sufficiently relaxed to enjoy it. I didn’t see ANY of the stuff everyone is talking about except the music hall. I kept stumbling on non events – actors pushing past me on the stairs on the way to somewhere else. I’d like to go again, if I could afford another ticket.

  21. Jane Says:

    Endorsing Kath A. ” I didn’t see ANY of the stuff everyone is talking about except the music hall”. Nor did I. And even then I only saw back-stage and was ushered out after 5 minutes. The people I could see in the music hall audience were not wearing masks so it looked as though we would not be allowed to be part of it. It was one of the most disappointing and frustrating evenings I’ve had in a long time, especially as I would have loved everything described above. Was this my fault? I waited in rooms and nothing happened. I followed a crowd and waited outside rooms where something was going on that I couldn’t see or hear. I went through doors and behind curtains and came back to where I had first started. Curiosity squashed, I went to the cloakroom (yes, I found that!) for a break. Where was the bar??

  22. roadkill Says:

    No it is not your fault… it is all overrated… it’s like the emperor’s new clothes.
    This format has been done before and much better… looks like a ploy by some eager beavers to immerse us all in their own blabber…

  23. I have spoken to lots of people who have seen the show and theey seem to be divided quite neatly into two camps: those who adored the show and got a lot out of it and those who wandered around and generally felt a bit lost and disappointed.

    I fall into the latter camp, I saw a couple of cool things but always seemed to be arriving at the end of scenes. There were lots of things I’ve heard about since that I completely missed out on despite being there for a good couple of hours. If large numbers of people are coming away feeling a bit short-changed then Punchdrunk need to work on things.

    I’m hoping because I saw it early in the run these things will have been ironed out, but going purely on word of mouth it does seem like only half the audience get the full experience of this show – those who do however seem to love it.

  24. sergio Says:


    I´m looking for two tickets for the show on 2nd January…

    If somebody have it and can´t go in this date, please let me know it.

    My email is:

  25. Cardinal Pirelli Says:

    Ha, someone manages to dig out pretty much the one duff review. You aren’t Christopher Hart, still smarting at being isolated, are you?

    Having taken roughly thirty people to see the show (and similarly to Faust) not one was disappointed, I did make sure that they knew to chase characters and not empty rooms though but that should be obvious to anyone attending.

  26. Idetrorce Says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  27. jon Says:

    I found BAC too small/the crowds too big this time.

    Tho I did get the music hall men singing/shouting at me “You will die!” over and over again.

    The best bit by far was the 10 minute “avant-garde” piece of theatre by a woman in a leotard accompanied by a man on iPod in one of the side-rooms. Would love to see that again.

    As the review says, if you’re going for another Faust you’ll likely by disappointed – not entirely Punchdrunk’s fault, but still a shame.

  28. Michael Says:

    I actually thought this was far better than Faust: although the people I was with seemed to stumble across more of Poe’s stories and have far more intense experiences (one guy got locked in a room by a “doctor”, was forced to drink absinthe and got stroked) than I did, I still came across far more stuff than I did with Faust.
    My highlight was seeing the Tell Tale Heart acted out in a small room with only two other audience members. The woman pulled a heart out of a cupboard after flinging herself around the room to the tune of a heartbeat and ran off. All three of us followed us, and were rewarded with lots of audience members gathered on the stairs watching in bewilderment as we ran past behind a woman clutching a blood-soaked heart.
    Main source of disappointment was not seeing the black cat… I’m actually sure, in retrospect, that I went into the room where it spent most of the evening but went out again wondering why one of the guards was sitting in an armchair. Ah well. I was also very panicky because my group had been told to meet outside the theatre at 10 pm on the dot, but unlike with Faust, it was impossible to leave without seeing the finale. I wasted quite a lot of time trying doors and attempting to find the exit.
    It’s definitely worth going to see, in my opinion. Caveat to point out for me would be the sweat-inducing masks. They effectively create atmosphere but are uncomfortable too. Also my glasses kept falling off (I was wearing them over the top of the mask, being very short-sighted) in the middle of dark rooms, so that I’d have to scramble around on the floor looking for them. This happened at one point at the bottom of the main stairs with actors throwing themselves around, which was worrying as I wasn’t sure I’d be getting out of there with glasses intact.
    Advice 1: If it seems you’ve just missed a scene, move on. I stayed far too long in the perfumery (which was wonderfully decorated) with no reward. That woman refused to talk to or interact with me at all, even when we were completely alone. Maybe I should have made the first move… :p
    Advice 2: The cat is in the room with the guard sitting down and a fireplace. Don’t miss it like I did!
    Advice 3: Get a cloak from the tailor (I couldn’t for the life of me give directions to him, but hopefully he’s easy to find near the start of your journey). It makes you feel really powerful and more a part of the action.
    Advice 4: You are allowed in the Palais Royal at all times. With Faust, I got the impression that you only went to the bar at the end of your journey… this was probably completely wrong, and it definitely is with Masque.
    Advice 5: Explore on your own. Go on, it’s more fun even if it’s scary in the dark. You’ll soon overcome your fear of the dark (I did!) and adrenaline will kick on. Or perhaps terror.
    Advice 6: If actors approach you, play along. Especially if you are invited to go with them – you seem to get more intense performances if you do. I never did this, unfortunately. I wish I had. The woman who looked at my hand and then shook her head didn’t really count.
    Advice 7: Unless you’re really having a panic attack, don’t waste time trying to leave before the finale. You will know when it happens, because all the actors gather the audience up and take you to it. Don’t try the fire exits/ emergency exits – the guards will not let you go out.

    I had a good time, and would have had an even better one if someone had given me that advice beforehand. The actor who spat wine at me near the start didn’t help much either :p. So go, and enjoy. It’s excellently performed and atmospheric. 🙂

  29. mark I Says:

    I loved this – my highlight was an actor who seemed to move around a lot (I saw him in a lot of dark rooms) who’s character was an homage to the marvelous Velma from Scooby Doo – every time I saw him he was crawling around on the floor crying “My glasses – I can’t find my glasses!”

    Not sure which Poe story he was referencing, but it made my night!

  30. Michael Says:

    I’m glad I entertained you. 😀

  31. Gerwyn Says:

    I assumed you need to bring your own mask, but having heard that they give you cloaks, do they give you masks on entry as well?

  32. Gerwyn – yes, don’t worry. They supply the masks.

  33. Bel Bowen Says:

    I suspect Michael is right, that interaction with the actors is a way of intensifying the experience. Although I am not sure there was much I could do when seduced in a dark corner near the Opium den, whilst the actor whispered into my ear that my blood was turning thick and black with death (he made a married woman very happy!). Also, what is the story about passwords? I overheard a spectator approaching a man in a cloak with cards and after following his example was given a scroll with instructions. I probably wasted much time trying to find Gold Bugs and William Marray(?), but there is obviously more to it, then just an assemblage of scenes.

  34. Gerwyn Says:

    Thanks Andrew. Does that mean we shouldn’t take our own masks. We’d prefer to use our own, but will we be told to use the ones supplied?

  35. Caroline Says:

    Maybe one of the greatest things i have ever taken part in? I will answer my own question – YES. I am going back in April and i can’t wait. I had my name shouted out by Roderick Usher in the theatre and his crazy sister sat on my lap and stroked my hair. A man took my arm and led me around the corridors and we had loads of people following us which made me laugh. I found a cat and a robotic skull told me i was going to die. I also got onto one of the beds and couldn’t get off again…

    The only dissappointment for me was that for some reason or another my Late was cancelled… =(

  36. Bel Bowen Says:

    Yes, Caroline. We made some lovely masks which we weren’t allowed to use. But it is quite practical as you will notice on the spot who is an actor and who is a spectator, i.e. where the action is. Still, dress up adds to the atmosphere and attracts the attention of the actors.

  37. Matt Smith Says:

    I went last Thusday (3rd April 2008) and it was the quite the best theatrical experience I’ve ever been to. It was worth every penny; and I paid £110 for 2 tickets!!

    From the first minute you’re grabbed and sucked into it all. I ended up getting locked in a cupboard (from the inside) with a bride who removed my mask, thanked me for coming and then picked the petals from a rose, one by one. She then told me her big secret, asked my advice and gave me the rose before finally letting me out of the tiny cupboard we were both locked in!

    I also found running around with my mask and velvet cape more fun than I’d had in years! Its like being a child again, never knowing what you’re going to experience next. Finding a spouse being hanged, a friendly black cat or a secret tunnel through a fireplace.

    Absolutely brilliant entertainment, the night went in a flash. If I had another spare couple of hundred pounds, I’d go again before it finishes on Saturday.

  38. Stephen Walmsley Says:

    Went last Friday, the first hot day of the year so far! I’m sure this contributed to the overall feeling of decadence.

    Was given a charm (a beautiful smelling concoction of oil and dried flowers) to hold in my palm by the perfume girl. She whispered that the outside is filled with the souls of the damned.

    Drank white wine in the wine store, only to be told that blood would ooze from my eyes and ears. The actor gripping my mask and telling me this as I looked through his hand will live on in my mind as one of the single most intense theatrical experiences of my life.

    Stroked the beautiful black cat. He licked my hand!!!

    Saw the burial.

    Fell in love with Madeleine, although missed out on spending time in the cupboard with her.

    Saw my girlfriend ushered away into a private curtained area by a rather (too!) good looking tall man.

    Saw the blood soaked heart but not the scene which preceded it.


    Missed what looked like an orgiastic carnival the moment before the finale bells rang.

    Couldn’t for the life of me find the cabaret bar. Where is it and how on earth do you gain entry.

    I seem to remember hearing that in a room with a large bed there is what sounded like a contemporary ballet sex scene. Where?!!

    One of the most amazing nights of my life.

  39. Alasdair Maughan Says:

    I know the production is long gone, but I was extremely fortunate to have seen it in January. I was (and still am!) blown away by it! The final Red Death scene was obviously a highlight, during which they played some warped, cacophonic version of the Blue Danube waltz.

    Does anyone know what this piece of music is, and if it is available to buy?


    • grazia Says:

      The gorgeous music is Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite no 2 (also in the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack). It’s wonderful,isn’t it? And, despite sounding very 19th Century, it was written in 1938…

  40. nahla Says:

    Does any one have any vid of punchdrunk ahows, i found so little on youtube, thanx

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