The Secret Keeper has every trope a fairy tale needs: the archetypes of a young prodigy and greedy parents, a miracle, and human flaws, which lead to an inevitable downfall and a moral lesson. The difference is that Angela Clerkin’s play is a ‘story for adults’ with a darker tone addressing responsibility, parenting and the weight of guilt. But although the play promises to be ‘a personal story with global implications’, its scale might be overestimated, and ultimately it does not push the boundaries enough to fully subvert the genre.
Clerkin writes and co-directs the play with Lucy J Skilbeck, but also stars as the Good Daughter, a.k.a. The Secret Keeper herself. She sits high in her bedroom, narrating the story to us with a charming calm about her. She patiently listens to her parents’ and eventually the entire town’s deepest, darkest secrets, represented by ominous magpies. As she lifts the weight off everyone’s hearts, she quickly gains a reputation. Her parents first share the miracle with their neighbours out of good will, but soon they capitalise on her gift, and the Good Daughter finds herself trapped in her bedroom, weighed down by the most disturbing secrets. Ultimately she makes the decision to release the magpies, turning the town against her.
The world built in the production is quite captivating; Nick Powell and Harry Johnson elevate the story with their cinematic soundtrack and sound design, and Colin Grenfell’s lighting brings a cinematic quality to the stage. The set design of Simon Vincenzi sets the play apart from other twisted fairy tale productions: the black colour scheme peppered with twinkling light and colourful balloons enhance the bleakness of the play’s world. His use of levels break up the space, distinguishing between the Good Daughter’s bedroom and the rest of the world, and his use of scale allows the play to move between the family’s home and the outside world with ease.
Niall Ashdown, Hazel Maycock and Anne Odeke join Clerkin, portraying different townspeople and sharing plenty of chemistry. Occasionally the charm fades, especially during some of the repetitive songs that sound a tad too vanilla and add little to the plot. But there are some brilliant scenes here too, particularly the moment when the secret-magpies gather for a meeting, which quickly becomes a debate between those secrets that wish to remain anonymous and are concerned about their rights and those who crave global fame and want to become viral scandals. More of this originality and clever humour would have meant a very fresh take on the fairy tale genre, but in the second act the play sadly becomes too focused on its own plot. By revealing the secrets, the production loses its mystery and gets concerned with tying up loose ends instead of potentially going deeper than the narrative and saying something about its core themes.
In today’s world where lies and scandals bubble to the surface on a daily basis, and where social media can turn anyone’s secret into a global scandal, The Secret Keeper could have allowed a couple of more winks to its audience.
The Secret Keeper played at the Ovalhouse until 21st October.