Sleep No More's ominous atmosphere and interactive space delights guests

In what seems to be the love child between a haunted house and an escape room, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is an immersive theater experience that stands apart from the rest. What elevates this experience beyond others in this trend of high-production-value experimental theater is the sheer attention to detail and the creation of atmosphere.

Sleep No More is located in the McKittrick Hotel, a fictionally abandoned building, which is given a new life just for this show. Guests linger in the Manderley Bar prior to entry. 

Once they are invited inside, there is no sitting, no playbill and no stage. Instead audience members are free to roam about the five floors freely and independently. Solitude is encouraged, speaking is prohibited and exploration is a must.

All books can be taken off the shelves and read, all globes can be spun and all desk drawers can be searched. This excess of detail is exactly what audiences crave when they sit in their red velvet seats at the theater and wonder “is he really reading from that book or is it a blank prop and a recitation of lines?” On that curiosity, Sleep No More delivers.

This is mainly the result of the work of Beatrice Minns, the micro-set designer for Sleep No More. Her meticulous details complement Livi Vaughan’s realistic set design to create that uncanny feeling while exploring the McKittrick Hotel that guests are intruding upon the home of someone that has died long ago, but has never really left.

While exploring the atmosphere is half the entertainment, the actual theater portion of Sleep No More comes in the form of actors interacting with the environment via narrative loops. 

Some character loops are fairly stagnant, frequenting only a few of the same rooms, while others have much more dynamic tracks that might even move between floors. 

The concept is having to follow a character to keep up with a particular story line but in doing so, Punchdrunk delivers essentially the truest form of a first-person narrative.

Despite having an open universe to explore, guests cannot help but become focused on following the character on their journey.

Boodoo |    Flickr

Boodoo | Flickr

With Euan Maybank’s lighting design, at times it can be hard to see anything else. It is dark inside the McKittrick; just dark enough so that you can see the hand in front of your face, but not much else.

It is a clever darkness though; the audience is told that they can explore to their heart’s desire, but it is Maybank’s light design that truly acts as a guide. Before even entering the Manderley bar, guests must traverse a dark, twisted corridor where the only guides are small lights dispersed stingily on the floor. While “spooky,” this design also strategically teaches visitors that the dark corners are no place to linger.

Scene with Masks, 2014

Robin Roemer |    Wikimedia Commons

Robin Roemer | Wikimedia Commons


 Sleep No More is a highly interpretive piece. Actors favor motion over speech, often breaking into dance when their music starts to play. Maxine Doyle’s choreography is bewitching but can become a little repetitive.

What is truly magical is Stephen Dobbie’s sound design which accompanies such movement. The transitions are clean, the timing impeccable, and the suspenseful Hitchcockian tracks were chased with period tunes to break the tension.

What is truly most impressive about this Punchdrunk production is the skillful coordination of the narrative loops which revolve around the music and sound cues. Without an attentive ear, it is almost impossible to track where the music repeats, but it must because all of the storylines have points where they dance or even mouth the words to a song.

There is but one bone to pick with Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More: the price. The factors that makes this show unique is also what makes the price difficult to accept. The ability to choose your own path is priceless, but with several story loops it is literally impossible to see all of them in one go.

So instead of paying a lofty fee to experience something just once, audience members are tossed out too soon with burning questions and no sense of closure. To expect audience members to pay over 100 dollars per ticket and only get to see a portion of the show feels something like a scam.

It would be wrong to continue singing the praises of Sleep No More in a student newspaper without emphasizing this barrier to entry.

Overall, Sleep No More delivers on every aspect of storytelling. There is a mastery to the craft on both a micro and macro level and an understanding of the human condition.

If only every human could have a chance to see it.

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