Secret Theatre have returned with another site-specific immersive production, stealthily housed inside a Zone 1 London location. As with their previous work, we are given very little information in the lead up to the event, finally receiving an email from “Queen Pussy” with location, dress code, password and start time. Since tickets went on sale there have been one or two photos and quote suggesting what film they would be adapting, and my group knew what we had come to see. I will not however mention that here to avoid spoilers for those who have not figured it out yet.
On arrival, from the outside appearance, you would easily be fooled into thinking you had come to the wrong place. A door squashed between shops on a main road hardly suggests the opulence and grandeur lying just inside. Having given the password and signed in, the curtain is peeled back and we are let into the venue for pre-show drinks in the bar. It's important to mention the location, which is truly stunning, and furthermore fits brilliantly with the style and themes of the production. There's plenty of glamour and spectacle in the bar, and one or two shady punters lingering around with their drinks.
The performance is given over 4 floors, with action taking place all over the building. Secret Theatre’s work is a little more guided than other immersive companies, meaning you aren't really free to explore. However the characters work hard to engage the audience (credit to Lisa Moorish for motivating an initially rather unfocused female crowd), and if you adopt the attitude of being ‘in it together’, then it's a really fun experience. Tonight the audience were a fairly lively bunch who were happy to get involved and suspend their disbelief, and it was a bold decision to begin with a burlesque show! I imagine capturing the audience's attention and encouraging an enthusiastic atmosphere is a challenge one must constantly address when creating productions of this style, and this evening's overture certainly packed a punch!
The actors do a solid job, with some strong performances; Steven Bush injects some serious energy into his role, contrasting the initial arrogant sexuality early in the piece with some extremely physical drama towards the end. He gives a strong physical performance and attacks the more ‘far-fetched’ elements of the plot with complete commitment. There is always a danger that in these moments you can lose the emotional background to the character, but thankfully Bush maintains the essence of the role to the end. Brian Tynan, a regular in the Secret Theatre ensemble, combines a strong sense of humour with a dramatic intensity leading us to his explosive final scene, although I did feel that the closure of his role deserved more acknowledgement. His character seemed to disappear without an ending. What is interesting about Tynan’s work is his ability to layer melodramatic roles with a level of subtlety which makes the characterisation believable, avoiding stereotyping.
The difficult thing about Secret Theatre’s work is that as an audience member, one has to bear in mind the motive behind their work. They are passionate about site- specific theatre, and have achieved a great deal. Their commitment to contributing to charity before seeking to make a profit is commendable, but does mean that there is only so far they can develop their work. It wouldn't be fair to make comparisons to other site-specific/ immersive companies such as Punchdrunk and Les Enfants Terribles as their aims are different. Secret Theatre seek to create ‘affordable and entertaining’ productions, which they succeed in doing. This production is not my first visit to Secret Theatre, and what I was really pleased to see is that they clearly learn from each piece they create, developing and solving the issues that caused difficulties in previous productions. It is clear their work matters to them. Yes, perhaps with a larger budget there are certain aspects of their work that could be developed; their performances spaces could be larger and more open to set dressing and running scenes alongside each other. This might aid in the human traffic between scenes, but what Secret Theatre do succeed in doing is generating an environment and performance that is committed and entertaining. It is up to the audience member to invest and engage with it.