Well Secret Theatre proves a tricky one to review. Given the whole purpose of the enterprise is for the show to be, well, secret, there are some fairly clear difficulties in talking about it without giving the whole game away.
In actual fact, press have been given permission to name the play in question. However that does not feel quite in keeping with the spirit of the event and so this review will provide some general clues and maybe a few more cryptic hints along the way – probably enough to give most readers a likely shortlist.
The production is of an existing play. Secret Theatre Lab have previously adapted Edward Scissorhands and Reservoir Dogs for live shows, but in this case the work is a regularly staged play. It is an extremely well known story. The chance of not being aware of it is very small indeed. And if you went to school in England then it will be practically zero.
It takes place in London City Island. One of those developments that rise unnoticed until you turn around one day and find that a previously unloved and forgotten corner of the city is now covered in flats being pitched at foreign traders who have a half million lying around in pocket change (not the penthouses naturally). It is canny choice of location. Not least because the half-built isolated state is perfect for a promenade production that requires both interior and exterior scenes. Everything is self-contained and there is less risk of unplanned factors derailing affairs.
The site, located not far from Canning Town, could hardly be more appropriate. Sat in the London Borough of Newham, we are in one of England’s most diverse communities, and the play in question is built on long-running tensions of groups forced to share a common city. The clashes here are between the working class white community and the embedded Asian community that settled in England in the latter half of the 20th century.
Sadly there is no mention of a third community who have changed the face of the area more drastically than any other migrant group; bankers. Canary Wharf is based in Newham, and the borough contains the largest income inequality in the country. Yet they live such a self-contained, isolated existence they may as well not exist. There is far more in common between the two warring tribes than either have with those working and living in the penthouse flats that loom over them. Still that is for a different play.
The fair British climate (where we set the scene) may mean taking a cardigan might be wise; much of the promenade production is located outside. Also sensible shoes wouldn’t go amiss given there is much walking over pebbled ground.
The acting is good across the ensemble and particularly among the two leads, who work well to breathe life into lines that have lost much of their power due to overfamiliarity. The blending of traditional dialogue with more modern flourishes is carefully done, and all the more impressive for it. This is not a production that is in awe of the source material, or sees it as something that can never be altered. Whilst never going overboard, there are a number of moments when additional dialogue helps bridge the gap between the old and the new, and embeds the characters in the modern communities they are supposed to be part of.
It is not without problems. The largest of which is that there could have been greater consideration for the challenges of the promenade performances. By the time the play comes to an end, we have been on site for nearly 3hrs, and much time is lost in moving people around. This loses momentum and it would have worked better if they could have found a way to keep people in situ for longer, thereby cutting down the number of transitions. If the play was shorter then it wouldn’t be a problem but it makes a long play even longer.
The other issue, and this really should have been recognised in advance, is that there are only two toilets for the entire audience. This meant a considerable queue during the interval, and a number of people missing a large chunk of the opening to the second half. At £28 a ticket, a couple of additional port-a-loos could surely have been afforded.
Overall an interesting adventure. The fact it is secret gives it a frisson of excitement and if I’d personally have preferred a different play, then it is undeniably an astute choice given the format is likely to draw in people who go to the theatre less often and who may not have seen such a well known play performed live before.