“You must think us a right rough bunch of people”
How long can you keep a secret? How long should you keep a secret? As it turns out, critics were tweeting the title of the Lyric Hammersmith’s ‘Secret Theatre Show 2’ as soon as they could get their phones on in the interval, unleashing a flurry of outraged blogs and tweets which argued both sides of the toss – it was either like Christmas being ruined or one of the least important parts of the whole experience. That experience is Secret Theatre, an ambitious 8 month programme launched by the Lyric’s Sean Holmes which has pulled together an ensemble of 20 creatives who will produce 7 shows over the period. But the key is that the titles are kept from us, no programmes are for sale on arrival and so technically you take your place in the auditorium, which is mid-renovation, not knowing what the curtain will rise upon.
A quick scoot around the internet will reveal the titles of Secret Theatre Show 1 and Secret Theatre Show 2 which have now opened but in the spirit of the whole affair – after all as we leave, we are urged “Shhh. Keep the secret…” – this review won’t spill the beans too much. We live in a spoiler-saturated society now when it comes to much of our popular culture and so whilst it may not be to everyone’s taste, the unique thrill of knowing nothing in advance is one to savour. It also leads to the intriguing question of when recognition of what play is being performed will come, indeed if at all for it could be a piece of new writing, experienced theatregoers should be fine but new audiences have the opportunity to possibly experience some of the greatest writing of last century as if it were a brand new play and that is what is genuinely exciting about this enterprise.
Having seen both Show 1 and Show 2 now, it is fascinating to see how the ensemble has been working together, under Holmes’ direction, to create a defined aesthetic for this company. Hyemi Shin’s designs focus on stripped back space and high clean lines, early indications are that food will play an important part as props, and the maintenance of the diverse natural accents of the cast provides a welcome shot in the arm, clearly marking realism as the enemy and establishing the vivid theatricality with which these plays will be approached. It’s a bold approach and one with variable returns here, and it will be interesting to see if this is an aesthetic that they pursue across the season or whether they will continue to innovate and surprise – I rather hope it will be the latter.
A few details to help govern your choice if you’re undecided about taking the risk yet don’t want to know too much. Show 1 is much the shorter, a new version of a classic which has been partly devised by the company too and which is a raucous reinvention of animal onesies, PJ Harvey on the soundtrack and some nifty gender-swapping – Billy Seymour and Katherine Pearce do strong work but the hugely exciting Charlotte Josephine is the stand-out here. The source material suits the symbolic imagination that suffuses this production but it is full of concepts and imagery that isn’t always fully realised.
Show 2 is considerably longer, a 20th century modern classic like you have never seen before and whilst it may initially seem irreverent, emerges as a devastatingly effective treatment, particularly in the heightened emotion of the second act. Forget what you think you know it ought to be about and what it should feel like and experience the new textures revealed here, its revelatory take on familiar characters and relationships. Nadia Albina cannily recalibrates the motivations of the lead, effectively dealing with nominally playing out of her age range, Leo Bill locates a deeply moving innocence beside her and Adelle Leonce and Sergo Vares pair up marvellously as a sexually voracious couple, she excelling at anguished despair, he most convincing with his dangerously animalistic edges.