When first hearing of the Secret Theatre project, my intrigue outweighed my apprehension. With runs selling out before they even start, audience members seemingly love the risk of buying tickets without knowing either the location or the show they are going to watch. Past productions include Edward Scissorhands in an abandoned factory in New York, The Diary of a Sociopath in a Hollywood theatre asylum and most recently Se7en Deadly Sins in a London members only club.
With only a start time, tube stop, secret password and warning about appropriate footwear, I embraced the uncertainty and went to see what all the fuss was about. All I knew about the production was that it would “challenge social and political extremes that face east Londoners”; to say I was anxious is an understatement.
As we crossed the red bridge by Canning Town tube station, my question of how immersive the production would actually be was answered, when met by a policeman escorting us across the bridge (who I did not at the time realise was an actor), gang members asking for drugs and finally a stylish woman welcoming us to London’s City Island, the location of the evening’s entertainment. The island felt a little creepy and deserted, but the building itself exuded affluence as it boasted of the new social clubs, apartments, bars, boutiques etc. that would be built on the site. We were invited to get a drink and look around as we all nervously tried to work out who of us were actors and who weren’t.
Unfortunately due to rain the production started over half an hour late, the problem being that audience members weren’t told a thing due to all cast members being in character. Interactions between said actors and audience members before the show in my opinion fell a little flat (maybe due to length of time they had to do it for) and seemed irrelevant once the play had begun. In order to continue the surprise of the Secret Studio Lab’s new production, I won’t say which play it is, only that it is a contemporary take on a well-known love story. Highlighting relevant issues regarding race, religion and social class, we watched as Asian Muslims rivalled East End working class ‘lads.’
The cast are very talented, and both director and actors attack the difficult text without fear. Lead actors Chris Mason and Lauren Santana are a particular highlight, as well as the show’s comic relief Dilek Latif and the peaceful Imam played by Muzz Khans. An outstanding performance comes from Denholm Spurr, who adds both humour and tragedy to his boyishly playful character.
Most of the issues I had with the production were unavoidable due to it being done in the promenade style. For example, audience members are on their feet for over three hours and are not always being able to hear actors clearly due to overhead planes or passing trains, although at some moments the noise of surrounding London adds ambience. About ten members of the audience left before the second act started, but this could very well have been to do with the difficult language, stereotypical of the established playwright. Particularly in moments of high drama, the move between locations seems a little clumsy; having said that, for a play as familiar as this one, the director’s choice of performing it in such an original location adds intrigue and intimacy. Fight scenes in particular are thrilling when done in near darkness on rainy gravel paths. Overall, I would definitely say that the novelty and uniqueness of the experience make it worth a visit.
Secret Studio Lab’s current production is playing at the Secret Island until 31 August. For more information and tickets, see the Secret Studio Lab website. Photo: Secret Studio Lab.