It may seem odd to some but there is a pocket of punters in London who crave the unknown. They will willingly part with their hard-earned cash to embark upon an evening of mystery and perceived possibility.
I am of course talking about the fascination we appear to have with ‘secret’ events. You surely know that to which I refer. They come in all shapes and sizes; the ‘Secret Cinema’ immersive film experience, the immensely popular ‘Punch Drunk’ performances and even food can become a surprise with the culinary adventures brought to us by ‘Gingerline.’
With tickets to these events often selling out in a matter of minutes it comes as no surprise to see other ventures popping up to cash in on our desires to be thrilled. Enter the new kid on the block – ‘Secret Theatre’ at the Lyric Hammersmith, which aims to sell novelty hungry viewers £15 tickets to (as the name suggests) a secret play. Customers know that it can be a revival of a classic, an adaptation or a completely new tale but no further information is given besides a name of ‘show one’ or ‘show two’ and an approximate running time.
Now, it is hard to write a review about a secret play because we can’t tell you what it is. That would ruin the surprise and essentially make it the ‘Known-About-Already-Theatre’, but we are going to try.
It’s an exciting thing to go to the theatre without knowing what you’ll see. You have no expectations so your mind is free to work through any and all possibilities. That is, until the first actor steps on stage to turn what was purely imaginary into something solid. With this excitement comes one very obvious pitfall – disappointment. Like when I bought a blind ticket at the Edinburgh Festival only to see a terrible one man show about a guy suspected of abducting and murdering young children. Spoiler alert: it was the werewolves!
Imagine my delight then to discover that Show One of Secret Theatre was to be one of my favourite plays. One of the reasons I love it is because it cries out to be re-imagined by every company planning a production. For example I’ve seen it be performed by a conventional company in Glasgow which explored the play’s stance on subservience and class. I’ve also seen it produced by a troupe of Korean mime artists in London whose only props were two chairs. Secret Theatre’s production was stranger than any of those by a long way.
I won’t go into the details of why that might be, it’s impossible to do so without spoiling everything, but be aware that you are in for one of the crazier experiences of your theatre going life. The broken narrative could be seen as an attempt to mirror within the structure of the play, the shattered psyche of the desperate lead character, if not for the fact that the calculated madness almost completely masks the plot. I know for certain that had I not known the story beforehand I would have been cut adrift, completely unable to decipher just what the hell was going on. Even knowing the plot, the disjointed script and characterisations served only to alienate me from the story and I never for one minute felt empathy for plight of the central character.
The actors were all fine without anyone giving a standout performance. The set design, such as it was fluctuated between the spartan and the non-existent. A few monitors and a chair does not a set make. I’m being too harsh here I know, I don’t normally mind a set-less production if the story is engrossing. Indeed it’s the sign of a good play if the actors make you imagine the set yourself. However as time wore on and my annoyance grew at what was being done to ‘my play’ I think I began looking for things to complain about. I was not lacking for targets.
I also feel the need to mention that the audience behaved like they had never been to a public performance in their lives. One person shouted things out repeatedly whilst countless others carried out what they thought to be hushed conversations under their breaths. I imagine this might have been down to the complete impenetrability of the script but even so, you have to have a bit more respect for actors than that. I would have considered it terribly rude if I had had been in a cinema let alone a theatre. This was my first Secret Theatre performance so I have no way of knowing if this might be typical but it’s something to bear in mind.
I’ve struggled to find things worthy of recommending about this production. It’s short and snappy so even if you hate it you never feel that far away from freedom. The theatre is lovely too. Oh well, on to play 2.
I was allocated a ticket to ‘show two’ which I will tell you is an adapted revival and is close to 2.5hrs long. Director Sean Holmes had clearly decided to strip this classic tale back to its basics; dressing the cast in clothing much plainer than traditionally featured and challenging preconceptions by making sure that they did not fit the aesthetic stereotype of their characters. The set designed by Hyem Shin was minimal but modern, which was reflected in the script being somewhat altered to feature words more in line with the language of today.
150 minutes may sound like a long time and I have to confess that when I heard ‘show 1’ was closer to 75 minutes in length, I did think I’d pulled the short straw but I needn’t have worried. By the time the interval rolled round the audience were captivated and the second half saw this emotional investment deepen even further. The cast skilfully portrayed intense stress, ethical turmoil, overwhelming loneliness and the chronic loss felt from unspoken, unexplored love. When they gasped, we gasped, when they laughed we laughed and yes, when they cried some of us shed a tear with them.
After the show finished I spoke to a few of the audience members to gauge their impression. One thing that surprised me was the number of them that criticised the condition of the Lyric theatre; it is currently undergoing refurbishment meaning that much of the main theatre is covered in plastic dust sheets. I actually thought that this aspect added to the secret feel of the show. It almost gave the impression that you were seeing the play before it opened up to the general public.
The ‘Secret Theatre’ delivers exactly what it promises; a night out at the theatre, removing the hassle of choosing and giving the excitement of the unknown. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy and you can cope with the sound of rustling plastic, you can book your ticket now from lyric.co.uk or call 020 8741 6850.
Show One by Neil McComb
Introduction and Show Two by Jay Stone
Photographs by Alexandra Davenport