A door leads from the commuter hall of London Bridge station to a vast labyrinth beneath. This is the new home to Shunt, an artists’ collective whose Dance Bear Dance won last year’s Time Out Live Award.
After initiation in groups into the vaults under London Bridge station, which sees the audience greeted indirectly through an “in-character” station master and a lift operator who try so hard to prove they’re not actors that their performance is cringeworthy, the audience finds themselves sat on makeshift seats at the edges of what was previously a large underground wine cellar.
The space is dark, but piercing this blankness are a number of images that form the basis of the narrative of the first half: A woman appears in black with an umbrella; a pair of feet are glimpsed walking; an elevator travels horizontally from one end of the space to the other. These half glimpsed images are at once potent. They are dehumanised by the subjectiveness of the space, the throbbing soundscape, and the minimal lighting that ensures you only see exactly what is intended. But they are further reinforced by the pillars and arches that support the vault, which restrict one’s view. You are aware that the rest of the audience is in the space but because of the darkness and the physical obstructions you are never entirely sure where.
You wonder what they are seeing, a question that is occasionally answered as you view a distant shadow – another performer echoing the actions of the one a few feet away from you. One image is immediately, potently present, the other doubtlessly there, but seemingly on the brink of consciousness in a three-dimensional space that enhances the production’s feel of existing outside of reality, somewhere between a dream and a nightmare.
This uncertainty echoes the play’s themes. The audience are placed within an institution of sorts. It is unclear what exactly it is and it doesn’t matter. It could be an asylum, but it may just as well be a warped version of social interaction in modern life. It certainly bares many similarities: men are defined through their jobs and as cogs in a dehumanised system that sees the eternal presence of sex as a means of procreation and something to pass the time that must inevitably remain an unachievable ideal. The utopia which it should represent is again half glimpsed like everything else. Exotic dancers appear almost always out of reach and unobtainable, a paradise lurking in the shadows. Death too is a strong unifying theme explored in more depth through a surreal wake and the autopsy of the second half.
From the outset, and the long queue of people standing intriguingly beside a small door in the middle of London Bridge Underground Station, it is apparent that what you are about to see is unlikely to be suitable for those who are close-minded traditional theatre goers. This is a shame as when taken on its own terms, terms that triumph the sensation over narrative, Tropicana provides a breath of fresh air in an otherwise overly stale theatrical landscape.