Curiosity is the key to Charles Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller, a rambling memoir of his own urban rambling, and it is a truly Dickensian sense of curiosity which the Arcola Theatre and Punchdrunk have teamed up to explore. A curiosity which is insatiable and wide-ranging, occasionally morbid but always compassionate. Curiosity is required to find the unassuming shop which they have converted into a performance space, and to gain the most from the ingeniously structured performance.
As is always the case with a Punchdrunk production, nothing should be given away, the moment you step through the little door on Pearson Street into the world which has been created within is a vital moment of surprise. The half-hour which is spent there will be different for each audience member, and if my own encounter with stunning actor Hilary Ann Hunte was indicative of the general quality (and speaking to others afterwards suggests it was) there’s little possibility of disappointment.
Punchdrunk’s Enrichment programme has facilitated the project in achieving the company’s typical high-end production values, transforming the space into a perfect and detailed evocation of Dickens’ grimy underworld. It is the performances by Arcola’s 50+ senior creative learning group, however, which brings the piece to such arresting life. With a large team of Hackney-based performers from all walks of life, directors Owen Calvert-Lyons, Peter Higgin and Jen Thomas have created a deep and thrilling devised world, which each audience member will merely scratch the surface of in their short visit.
The performance is preceded by an optional guided walk, downloaded to an iPod and experienced independently, and though it doesn’t quite blend seamlessly into the main action, the journey it takes you through the backstreets of Hackney is a perfect primer and a considerable achievement in its own right. Guided by snatches of Dickens’ novel across a baking and crowded London Fields, it work well to build a passion for flaneurie, for walking more, for walking slower and for seeing everything. I urge you to take it.
Ironically it is the impossibility of seeing everything that The Uncommercial Traveller has to offer which creates a gnawing sense of frustration as you leave the venue. Those expecting the kind of explorative autonomy which Punchdrunk made their name may find this to be an insubstantial experience, but that’s not really the case. It is a brief experience, almost a chance encounter, but one that is filled with substance.
This is a site-specific production. For tickets visit the Arcola website.