(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/3; Photo: Teenage kicks … an audience member in Viola’s Room. 

Photograph: Julian Abrams.)

One Cartridge Place, London
Helena Bonham Carter narrates as a bare-footed audience explore exquisite rooms in this unsettling, grief-soaked journey into the night

The immersive adventure begins with a sleep. We are invited to lie down as the lights fade and the story begins, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter. Her voice pours into our ears through binaural headphones, sometimes velvety and playful, other times a scratching whisper.

She tells a tangled tale, written by Booker-nominated novelist Daisy Johnson and featuring the parallel lives of a modern-day teenager alongside a princess. A re-imagining of Barry Pain’s 1901 short story The Moon-Slave, it is steeped in Victorian gothic, featuring Dionysian femininity, but also a prince, a disappearance and a grief-soaked journey into the night.

There is unfinished business to the concept: the company’s first show in 2000 was an interpretation of Pain’s story, only seen by four people due to cost constraints. Two decades on, the story is squeezed into a winding series of unlit corridors through which we travel wearing our headsets, and in which the everyday intersects with the otherworldly, from the teenager’s sparkly, poster-clad bedroom to a castle’s gothic interior and glittering forests. Johnson’s parallel worlds hold shades of Narnia – we wander through children’s dens and wardrobes to find fantasy realms nestling within the quotidian.

Conceived by Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett who co-directs with Hector Harkness, it is a darkly alluring production which plays with well-worn tropes but spins them in unfamiliar ways. “It’s all a dream, surely?” says the narrator as the tale takes strange twists and it feels like a beautiful, enveloping one that hovers delicately between bedtime story, fairytale, children’s game and nightmare.

Where The Burnt City, the company’s inaugural show in their sprawling new south-east London home, left you stranded in its depths, this is its polar opposite. It is tightly story-lined with only one way to go: towards the lights winking a path ahead of us.

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