We’re plunged into total darkness. The safety curtain rises slowly. Mechanical whirring is the only sound. The stage is lit. Large green plastic sheets hang from the flies. A piano. Some chairs. Three television screens. The cast emerge one by one. They line up. Costumes of shorts and vests, dirty. They stare. They twitch. They walk forward to the front of the stage. They become animals scavenging for water from cups. Their bodies roll across each other. They stop, and go back to the line. The safety curtain comes down.
At this point in the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre Show One, the first in the Secret Theatre season of work, the audience have not a clue what they have brought a ticket for. From this opening scene, it’s still not apparent what show Sean Holmes has chosen to open this body of work with (although Show Two opened before Show One), but one thing is evidentially clear: this show is going to have some guts to it. This is evident from the banner that hangs by the box office in the Lyric’s foyer, a challenge to make theatre that audiences are hungry for, a type of theatre that is rooted in smashing preconceived ideas. Secret Theatre as a concept attempts to do this across a year’s work with a troupe of actors, writers and designers. To explore and break down our notions of theatre, just like Three Kingdoms achieved last year in the same venue.
In Secret Theatre Show One a classical text is put into the firing line of Holmes’s directing. I’m hearing rumours that Show Two puts the notion of director ahead of text to the point of oblivion, whereas there’s already a sense from this text that, like many productions of it beforehand, there is already an inherent deconstruction and acceptance that the director can take liberties. It is, after all (TINY SPOILER) an unfinished text. (END TINY SPOILER). Holmes treats the text episodically; the strongest elements that come through are the visuals. One character, played by Billy Seymour, spends the entire play pinned to the centre of the stage via a rope, navigating the stage in large swooping circles. Another moment sees the entire cast dressed in animal onesies, throwing water at each other whilst the stage is filled with strobe lighting. It feels chaotic and electric, alive with visually sweet images and moments.
There are scenes that capture the imagination, that give your heart a good pounding. During these moments it’s clear to see the mission of Secret Theatre has been given a chance to breathe. Leo Bill, with a cigarette protruding from his mouth, sitting at a piano and singing a sexy, sassy and seductive number whilst wearing a silk nightie, certainly gives the impression that he’s enjoying himself in this process. Other cast members find themselves in gender reversal: Charlotte Josephine plays her saxophone like she’s giving blow jobs to the audience; it’s orgasmic, but she’s also a male character who is driven by lust. Meanwhile Katherine Pearce is the perfect picture of a woman from Essex gone astray in the night, leaving her child in pursuit of something more intense but short lived.
Visually Secret Theatre Show One hits the mark. It does away with treating the text, and instead creates something bigger, an experiment which for the most part pays off. Where the production falls is when it hurls the visual identity of the play away, leaving behind the text which at times loses the central focus of the play itself. I say this as someone who knows the text, and whilst Holmes has played further with it, it does lack finesse. The central themes of the play come through the visual chaos that Holmes creates on the stage, but this isn’t carried throughout.
There’s something interesting, too, in watching the actors play characters which are new to them, and by this I mean away from their usual playing type. A great example is Steven Webb who becomes transformative in the role he takes. No laughs, no campness (anyone who has seen the Lyric Hammersmith’s panto will know what I mean), just straight acting. It works, but it’s not the same for all the cast. This is where Secret Theatre becomes a fascinating experiment. Everything from the process of working to the presentation is about risk taking, and trying something that rubs up against the restraints that British theatre tries to impose. It’s satisfying to see actors out of their comfort zone playing characters that make them appear weak actors, because you know that come another show they’re going to be seen in a completely different perspective, and no doubt shine because of it.
Secret Theatre Show One is not going to please everyone. It’s already shown that some critics struggle to get a grip on it, whilst the younger, more hungry crowd of theatre viewers are lapping it up. True, the production isn’t perfect – it relies too much upon the aesthetics and neglects to fully commit to a story the audience can follow (if that is possible from the original text which is already fragmented and disconnected). It does show that experiments can be exciting. Secret Theatre Show One left me bemused, frustrated and keen for more, and whilst it’s not perfect, it’s a step in the direction of something unchartered, and for that I can forgive and praise.
There have been comments that Secret Theatre is a pivotal moment for British theatre, and whilst I need to let this settle for a few more shows, those claims might just be right. Secret Theatre Show One appears as a giant “fuck you” to traditions, to text and conventions. That’s worth more than anything perfect.
Secret Theatre Show One is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 4 October. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photo by Alexandra Davenport.