Secret Theatre Show

Secret Theatre Lab
London City Island

The Cousin (Naviner Bhatti) Credit: Secret Theatre Lab
The Boy (Chris Mason) and His Father (Ged Forrest) Credit: Secret Theatre Lab
Secret Theatre Show Credit: Secret Theatre Lab

Secret indeed. The publicity says “We are going to take you to a secret Island in London where you can immersive yourself in our summer tragedy of love.” You book your ticket blind and get an e-mail telling you where to go with instructions to wear sensible shoes and the information that there will be a cash bar. I spent fifteen minutes failing to find the route to a destination already in sight—but that will, I’m sure, be sorted.

No one had any idea what to expect. The people where were assembling in a brand new bar wearing everything from jeans and tee-shirts to long dresses; one group was kitted out in Thunderbirds uniforms (were they part of the show?). Suddenly something went wrong, we were told we had to clear the bar. Was this a real emergency or had the show started.

In fact it wasn’t a new play or site-specific devised piece but a familiar story. I am even allowed to name it if I don’t give away the location but I’ll leave you to guess—you’ll find that easy and you might even identify the location if you study the pictures.

Outside there was a barney going on between East London lads (we’d passed some like them on the way to the venue; they’d offered us drugs). The language was familiar though with a few added modern expletives. We were in for a largely outdoor promenade and a tale of young love between a young East Ender and a Moslem girl he meets when gate-crashing a party (though that’s a few scenes on).

Chris Mason plays the boy with intelligence and a convincing accent. The girl (a few years older than in the original text or today’s laws would make her gaolbait) is less convincing. Talking faster than she can think may match excitement but doesn’t aid clarity and she totally ignores the verse which would have helped supply the sense.

The boy’s best mate (Denholm Spurr Peter) is coke-fired, which perhaps explains why he spouts poetry about a fairy, but a good performance is ruined by the director letting it become too exaggerated and self indulgent, though that’s not why the girl’s bad boy cousin (Navinder Bhatti) kills him.

The girl is still attended by an ayah, devoted to her, played here like a screaming drag act, a too consciously comic performance and on one note only: it’s her servant Peter who’s the clown in this play. By contrast, her performance gives emphasis to the violence of the fights that form the most successful feature of this production. Faces thrown down on gravel, the shifting surface risking a slip and changing a dagger’s direction make it scary. Watched at close quarters, there is a real sense of danger for the men already mentioned and the girl’s official fiancé (Shri Patel).

There’s enmity between the lovers’ families but this isn’t a play about ethnic or religious difference. The boy, though Caucasian, is probably Moslem—an Imam marries them without qualms, but they seem very westernised in the way that strangers mix with women at a party and in their disregard for Islamic burial practices. That element of control and protection of daughters found in Islamic and Hindu societies fits this story very neatly.

The imaginative approach of Richard Crawford’s production is intriguing but it is let down by the way it ignores metre and voices whose diction and projection don’t match the outdoor playing spaces and it has little understanding of location acoustics. It is a promenade whose progress is slowed down too often by stairs and narrow doorways with nothing happening in sight. Scenes are played in darkness ignoring lights nearby—in one case guiding the audience to the wrong destination.

If you choose to present a work so well-known, you have to come up with something special. What is original here needs to be fully thought through but there are interesting angles that add excitement, especially for newcomers to the play. The site makes readjustments relatively easy and readjustments of location can help transitions, clarity and volume.

Slavishly following metrical measures can be tedious but they are a helpful guide to sense that should not be ignored and performers must remember to communicate with their audience, not just their fellow actors—and their director needs to bring more thought and discipline to the playing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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