You enter through a door in the wall in Joiner Street, outside London Bridge Tube station. You then clamber through a locker in an Underground worker's cabin and find yourself, no, not in Narnia, but in a surreally swanky wood-panelled ante-room. A plummy voiceover relays unreassuring information about "the Machine" and "the Institute" in reassuring Establishment tones. It urges you to have a drink now, because "tomorrow the bar staff might be reptiles".
Then a steel lift gives you the illusion of travelling down to the centre of the earth and deposits you in the epic 70,000 square feet of barrel-vaulted murk where Tropicana - the latest show by the performance collective Shunt, in collaboration with the National Theatre - unfolds. In a room containing deserted cages, a threatening female announces that she is "a dog trapped inside the body of a woman" and drops hints about bestiality and lesbianism.
You then sit in almost pitch darkness punctuated by weird, spectrally lit images. A lift slides past horizontally through the middle of the space - its "descent" upsetting your compass bearings. Pineapples are bashed to a pulp with murderous fury. Tropical bird showgirls turn vulture-like as they push on a hearse bearing the corpse of the lift-attendant who had chatted to you on the way down.
I had a personal moment of pure panic when, in a trick of the light, I thought that everyone else had done a disappearing act and that I had been left there on my own. That split second of dread was instructive, bringing home to me just how shallow is the psychological impact of this imagery. It's an adolescent's view of the Underworld, with chorus girls embodying its pimply idea of transgression by performing the splits and slinky trapeze acts over a coffin to the pounding of an electric guitar. The humour would shame an undergraduate revue. In the second half, set in a mortuary, a collection of cod-medics cut open the lift-attendant's cadaver. The sequence where they pretend to crease up with laughter at the sight of one another is an example of bogus mirth at its least infectious.
Tropicana invites unfavourable comparison with another subterranean site-specific show from five years ago. In The Vertical Line, Simon McBurney and John Berger took the audience into the labyrinthine innards of the disused Aldwych Tube Station. This was an imaginary journey backwards in time and downwards in space to the Chauvet caves in France where, in 1995, speliologists found the oldest paintings known to man. The experience was a good deal more genuinely disorienting, but it also was an attempt to make profound ideas felt on the pulses - the force of the past's immensity; the parochialism of calling the cave paintings "primitive". Camp, inconsequential, leaving you in much the same place where you started, Tropicana is, by contrast, just an empty tease.
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