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22 June 2011
Duckie's Lullaby and Punchdrunk's The Crash of the Elysium, preview

Dominic Cavendish: The Telegraph

Two of the summer’s hottest tickets are for 'immersive’ experiences. Dominic Cavendish packs his pyjamas and heads for the mayhem .

A great night out: the cast of Lullaby

'Immersive” theatre is all the rage. Hardly a month goes by without another show bursting on to the scene that aims to draw its audience deeper into its world than any play conceived for a conventional space and traditional audience relationship. One lot makes it happen, while the other lot watches it unfold from a comfortable distance? So old hat, that.

I confess I’m a bit love-hate about it. Maybe it’s more of a “courage-fear” thing. I want to be surprised, amazed, challenged. I know the more you give of yourself, the more you get. Who doesn’t want to live intensely in the moment? Yet who also isn’t wary of making themselves vulnerable, getting caught off-guard, being found wanting?

Drama, as we’re used to receiving it, confronts us with human nature. Immersive theatre also confronts us with the spectacle of ourselves, coping or not coping, reacting well – or not – to whatever is flung our way.

Lullaby, by the radical performance collective Duckie, is the first of two new immersive shows to open within a week of each other – the other being The Crash of the Elysium, a hands-on Doctor Who adventure for children at the Manchester International Festival (see feature right). Both promise to be boundary-breaking moments for the genre.

On paper, Lullaby is the softer option. Literally. For not much more than £40 – cheaper than the best central London budget hotels – you can bed down at the Barbican Pit, either alone, with a partner, or in a group of three. Check-in time is 10.30pm. Breakfast and a shower the following morning are part of the package. You should leave having been treated to “a moonlit soporific serenade followed by seven hours of slow-wave sleep”. It’s the first time, so far as anyone’s aware, that a theatre show has been specifically designed to let its audience nod off for the night.

It all sounds quite soothing. But just look at the basic requirements. You’re asked to change into your pyjamas or nightdress and then, after an optional cup of cocoa and a cookie, and brushing your teeth, to drift off in the vicinity of more than 50 other people. Unless you’re used to kipping in boarding-school dorms, homeless hostels or hospital wards, that’s a big ask.

And how will one react to the surreal dreamscape cooked up by “sister songstresses H Plewis and Harriet Plewis and domestic dreamers Matthew Robins and Tim Spooner”, as the publicity has it? By purring with pleasure, or by tossing and turning? Given that many adults are still bundles of inhibitions, I reckon those children braving The Crash of the Elysium, who are merely required to save the universe, may have it easy by comparison.

The creative team – joined by their director Mark Whitelaw – are full of reassurance when I catch up with them in their East End rehearsal space, telling me, in so many words, to calm down, duckie. “It would be absolutely awful if you came and felt challenged or isolated by this,” Whitelaw says. The Plewis sisters sing me a sample lullaby, which sounds lovely. And they rattle through all the features designed to help people let go: the clean sheets; the night nurse on hand to ensure everything’s fine; the ear-mufflers available to cut out any snoring; the fresh, circulating air; the option to leave if it gets too much.

"There was definitely a mistaken assumption early on that this was going to be an endurance test and we were going to make people stay up all night and get high and wild,” says “H”. “Someone even asked, 'Are you going to film us while we’re sleeping?’” says her sister Helen, as if this was Big Brother.

They’re actually going to subvert Duckie’s formidable reputation as party animals and purveyors of cutting-edge cabaret – fermented at their longstanding home, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and also at the Pit, in their cheeky, Olivier-winning spin on burlesque (C’est Barbican).

"There’s going to be a sense that the party is over and now we’re going to look after you for a bit,” says Whitelaw. As with Punchdrunk, the audience is integral – “We bring them into the piece as far as we can” – but the quest is to achieve a sense of community, not to play people off against each other.

“It’s like we’re all puppies heading for the basket, trying to snuggle in together. That’s a deep desire in us all and when we get to that place, I think everyone will feel safer.”

Lullaby runs at the Barbican (0845 120 7550) from Fri until July 24

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