Against Captain’s Orders: A Journey into the Uncharted at the National Maritime Museum – review

The National Maritime Museum is part of the Royal Museums Greenwich group which, along with the NMM, comprises The  Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory, and the Cutty Sark.  Growing up in the area, I have spent a lot of time in this museum. As a kid I used to visit to do research for school projects. From those long ago days I remember large dark halls, a few silent, serious visitors, and large canvases showing tea clippers and ships from the naval history of Greenwich.

Today the Museum is an entirely different, brighter place. In 2011 a new wing was opened, the Sammy Ofer Wing, named after its very generous benefactor Sammy Ofer, an international shipping magnate (also funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund). The new wing was an important moment in the history of the museum, since it allowed a new direction in the way it presents its galleries and exhibitions. It also gives you direct access from Greenwich Park, and along with a cafe, brasserie and new shop, it has really turned this museum into a fantastic place to visit for both residents and tourists alike.

With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the NMM’s latest exhibition for kids is a groundbreaking affair, more of a theatrical show than a museum exhibition. Punchdrunk Enrichment (the educational arm of Punchdrunk theatre company, known for their immersive experiences) is behind the show Against Captain’s Orders: A Journey into the Uncharted, and their aim is to open up the archives of the museum to the young visitors to the show. But in a totally new and different way.

We arrived, very excited. You might see in the photos a hint of trepidation on the faces of the kids. Rightly so, as it turned out.  After being fitted out with life jackets according to four different groups (we were in Navigation) we were taken to the start of the exhibition  and handed some objects which we were told to investigate. It felt like we were going to be tested on what exactly a ‘sextant’ was and who some of the historical characters were. As we went inside it became clear that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our adventure was led by two characters called Glan Owens and Arthur Ambrose (real names Sammy Kissin and Michael Cusick on the day we were there, but the cast rotates). We were all crew members of the HMS Adventure and had to obey their orders (‘aye aye!’). Once there was a breach of security, things really started to get exciting. We dashed into darkened rooms, looking for clues, led by Glan and Arthur as we moved along a rabbit warren of chaotic corridors. There were loud emergency sirens and voices, beeping lights, tantalising clues. It was too fast-moving to really stop and look at everything, but the idea was that we were deep in the vaults of the museum, surrounded in artefacts.  Apparently the set took 6 weeks to build and I personally would have liked to have put the lights up and have a good old rummage around. Which would have broken the Punchdrunk spell immediately!

And which leads me to mention the small point that my children (8 years old and almost 10) were pretty much terrified by all of this action and adventure.  Despite my whispering (turning to urgent, repeated reminding) that these were actors, and it was only pretend, they were almost sobbing with fear!  I tried to joke that it was like being on a Dr Who set, and kept saying that it would soon be over, and still they clung on to me almost demanding to leave. The roomful of children (of all ages, although it’s recommended for 6-12yrs) seemed to be a real mixture of those who were loving the thrills and taking it in their stride, and those like mine who just didn’t like the noise and the darkness, and the atmosphere that had been so painstakingly created.  We actually had to run to get out; escaping, breathless, we felt as if we had survived one amazing adventure, and for my kids you could feel and see their huge relief.

Your child’s sensibility apart, it is clear that Punchdrunk has managed to create an effective, perilous atmosphere. The show, and the museum, are definitely being talked about.

A few days later when I asked the children if they had got over their experience, my son decided it had been ‘thrilling’. My daughter has stuck to her guns and says it was scary and she hated it. It’s funny really, as several friends have taken their friends to see it and raved about it, and I personally loved it.  I can’t really criticise her sensitivity.  I haven’t been to a Punchdrunk adults’ show myself yet. Maybe when I’m grown up and have got over my fear of the dark and loud noises, I’ll give it a go.

For more details see the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

For more on Against Captain’s Orders, and how to book to see the show, visit this link. There are daily shows until 31st August 2015 and advance booking is highly advisable.

Disclosure:  We were given free tickets to see Against Captain’s Orders for the purpose of this review.  All opinions are my own.  All photos taken by me. 

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