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Against Captain’s Orders – a review

Punchdrunk Enrichment’s Against Captain’s Orders was at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 31 August 2015.

‘Are we going to sit down, in this theatre show? Or is it an adventure?’

My son is an old hand at immersive theatre. Punchdrunk Enrichment’s The House Where Winter Lives, staged at the Discover Story Centre in 2012, was one of the first shows he went to. It involved crawling through snowy tunnels and making gingerbread men; from that point on, if he watches a performance where there’s no chance to take part, he usually enjoys it, but….well, it’s not quite the real thing.

There is no doubt that Punchdrunk Enrichment’s Against Captain’s Orders, a journey through the underground collections at Greenwich’s Maritime Museum, is the real deal. The audience members are put in small teams, each with their own cloth lifejacket, and led into a room with four boats, all of which have an nautical object inside their masts. The beginning is dark, eerie, and a tiny bit like a school trip gone wrong. It quickly changes into a tension-filled chase, a race against time, with a bit of psycho-drama between the two main characters thrown in for good measure. All very exciting stuff, where the children (aged between 6 and 12) use brains, memory and bravery to solve clues and save us all from….well, I won’t give it away. But let’s just say it was something that would give decent, law-abiding kids the willies.

There are several shows each day, with overlaps, so casting rotates. Our actors were staggeringly believable; I was hoodwinked at the start into believing that a timid museum staffer (Martha Ambrose) had been pushed into giving the introduction to our show, while her colleague was held up, getting a roasting from the Museum’s curator.

Punchdrunk and NMM were spot-on with their age range for this performance. I’ve successfully smuggled my five-year-old son into plenty of shows designed for older children; he can happily sit through a two-hour production for the over-sevens, and isn’t easily spooked. But he did find parts of Against Captain’s Orders frightening. There were a lot of loud bangs, sirens and the threat of being told off by unseen powers. The tension and anxiety conveyed by the actors was catching; and some of the puzzles along the way went a little over his head. But he still came out smiling.

There were several older children in our group, and they seemed to be completely engaged; I’ve read a couple of reviews claiming the performance wasn’t scary enough, but I’d say that was tosh. Adults can cope with donning terrifying masks and entering a hellish landscape for a couple of hours (although that’s not always the case – a couple of our friends were so freaked out at the start of Punchdrunk’s recent show, The Drowned Man, they had to duck out and head straight to the bar). But the severe alienation and disturbing scenes I’ve experienced in other adult Punchdrunk shows, would all be a bit much for your average tweleve-year-old.

So, our verdict on the show? Scary, but terrific. I would take my son back to Against Captain’s Orders this summer. As with all Punchdrunk performances, part of the beauty is in the set, and it warrants a second viewing, to take in the detail. And it would be good to give him a sneaky second chance to solve some of those tricky clues.

We were given tickets to Against Captain’s Orders for the purpose of this review. All views are my own.

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