The adverts for dreamthinkspeak’s piece ABSENT tell us of the audience experience ‘In 1958 a young woman wins the jackpot on the Premium Bonds and celebrates by checking into the exclusive Pavilion Suite at the fashionable Winter Gardens Hotel. Over 50 years later, she is still living there. Now the new owners of the building say they are redeveloping the hotel to make it more affordable for working people, creating jobs and prosperity. They have a reputation to maintain and they want her out. But what are they really up to? What’s really going on inside the once darkened corridors and faded interiors of this mysterious hotel? Above all, who is this enigmatic woman and why has she been there for so long?’

This is an intriguing concept, a fascinating back-story that has been carefully constructed to whet our appetite for an hour of mystery solving.

The set-up is impeccable, from the moment you walk into the normally-boarded up entrance of the glorious grand dame of the seaside Blackpool Winter Gardens (Derham Lounge Entrance) and are greeted by anodyne hotel pop-up banners, uniformed staff and video screens with personalised corporate messages, you are thrown into an incongruous world of contradictions.

Sat at one of the flat-packed chair and side table set-ups, you are reminded to read the newspapers as you wait for your tour to begin. Specially created copies of The Gazette are strewn around the ‘hotel foyer’ with the salacious headline ‘Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?’ that set your enigma-disentangling senses on edge and start to excite you into an expectation of high-drama.

Absent by dreamthinkspeak. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2015.
Absent by dreamthinkspeak. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2015.

As you start your tour, you are guided out of the Winter Gardens Hotel foyer and through tantalising doors pasted with ‘No Access’ posters and immediately you are transported into a different world. The world of a modern hotel, a manufactured rat-run of corridors and equally sized and perfectly symmetrical rooms where each piece of furniture is exactly the same as in another. The feat of fabrication is astonishing, we experience the brilliance of this concept more and more throughout the journey as we see tiny version of the same room, turned on their heads and in Alice in Wonderland fashion, become a child’s dolls house.

Surrounding us along the way are ghost-like films playing in dreamy repetitions, inviting us to see Maggie in her various stages of being part of the hotel. We see her in her former glory set in the dazzling lustre of the former hotel and we see the sad decline of both celebrity and building as progress takes its toll.

Absent by dreamthinkspeak. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2015.
Absent by dreamthinkspeak. Copyright Jim Stephenson 2015.

ABSENT is a wondrous experience, one set up for us to marvel at the cleverness of the creativity involved, there is beauty in the concept, the music, the video installations, the carpentry, the possibility of a story. However, for me, there is a lack of human interaction and as you drift out of the stupendous Empress Ballroom into the less opulent foyer spaces of the Winter Gardens itself an overall sense of anti-climax.

The theatre and narrative that we have been set up to expect is not forth-coming and I find the lack of talking from the ‘in-role’ guides to be just odd. Many of them I know to be acting students and so could surely manage to add a little personalised dimension to the experience, to proffer some further gossip about Maggie’s demise, or continue the corporate profile set-up by the films of the CEO and further the sense of conspiracy.

That said, it is a great piece of large-scale art installation that succeeds in its aim of inviting us to see and experience a fantastic piece of architecture in new, imaginative and absorbing ways. It is well worth going to see.

Bookings can be made at various intervals between 12noon-9.45pm, 20-25 August, 12-16 September, 25-29 September and cost £17.50, Under 26s/Groups of 12+ £12.50. It is worth booking a Private Tour for four people at the total cost of £60. Call Winter Gardens Hotel on 01253 74 33 44 or visit wintergardenshotel.co.uk


Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Melanie Whitehead is the Creative Director of The Old Electric, Blackpool's newest theatre. She previously worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

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