Thursday, 21 November 2013

Sshh... It's a.. Secret Theatre, Show 3 at The Lyric

Doctor, Governor, Journalist, Spiritual Helper

The Lyric in Hammersmith is famous for its creative and original productions of both old and new works. The recent buzz surrounding its new Secret Theatre series had not escaped me, but it was only when Show 3 begun that my usual theatre-date friend and I actually made an effort to book tickets. I apologise in advance if this review is a little rambling or discombobulated, it was that kind of night.

"Wear comfy shoes" we were told before. What? I was nervous. Although I love experimental theatre, anything that hints of audience participation tends to freak me a little, especially when there is no real description as to what the play is about.

I tried to find some reviews, but they were all rightly vague. I managed to establish that the Lyric had building works going on and you had to walk up numerous steps to where the play was being performed. Aaah I see. Health and safety and all.

When we arrived at the Lyric to collect the tickets, well in time for some pre-performance wine, we were told... "Meet in the foyer... 730... Don't be late, don't be late... We’ll leave without you."

Alright calm down... We sat right next to the foyer in the bar slurping wine and furtively checking our phones and glancing over to the approved meeting area "don't be late, don't be late."

Jittery already, our Sauvignon Blanc was interrupted by a theatre official (Captain of Health and Safety or some such) making an announcement in the bar.
The Governor and Warden
"You have to climb some stairs to get to the performance area, so if you feel you can't manage this, let us know, we will take you a different route... don't be late."

Cue thoughts of the future when we couldn't manage stairs. Perish the thought. Eventually we were ready to go and indeed we climbed up a fair few stairs before we reached the performance area. Oh ok we managed the stairs, we weren't late and we were numbed a little by our drinks. Now we could relax as we shuffled on benches - front row - cue more nerves from me.

The premise of the play as I saw it is capital punishment, authority, good and evil and a little bit of cause and effect. You are aware of the capital punishment issue from the beginning. It is clearly spelled out to you by the Governor of the Prison, attendants, journalist and others who are all there to watch an execution. It is clearly spelled out to you by the set which shows a lonely bed with a raised head and clearly not a friendly bed.

The Doctor
The first half is mostly amusing. As the Prison Governor is debuting her new form of the death penalty, an experiment which may be taken country-wide; the victim/criminal, Richard Sanger (Leo Bill) is an abductor, a rapist, a horrible man by all accounts. The rapport between the prison attendants is comical and the character of the watching journalist - though slightly obvious - is recognisable and easily disapproved of by any liberal theatregoer. The man who is meant to die, does not, cue more humour and a wonderful portrayal of a student doctor confused by his loyalty to his profession, morals and his career. Titter, titter.

21st Century wall still up we can take this, the audience I mean, we can take this, they're killing a man or trying to, so what... Yes, yes there's the politics and power scuffles and morality queries by all the players and yet still as the audience we are thinking aaahhh lovely yes, this is going to teach us about how capital punishment is not the answer. This is going to give us food for thought and great dinner party discussion. Great.  We are all waiting for the moral to be told to us and then we can forget about it and go home to our warm beds. And then something happens...

The rapist, though he has not died, has seemingly forgotten everything and therefore may be classed as mentally unstable and cannot be killed- laws as they are. It changes the judgement ruled. With a time limit on the success of the experiment, as the governor is set to report into the Home Secretary the next morning, she and the wardens and the doctor desperately try to force the man to remember what he has done so they can try to kill him again. By this point we are feeling uncomfortable, but there is still humour. They try everything they can, sinking to the depths of bringing in the identical twin sister of the murdered girl (Katherine Pearce) who has been sat in the execution viewing room. The governor gets her there through obvious psychological manipulation and she promptly faints.

The Criminal

Then they bring in the criminal's special-needs brother (Billy Seymour), who has also been in the waiting room. For a while he goes into spasms of joy and they embrace. Following some reminiscing on their childhood and some soft strokes and hugs from Richard, he admits he turned Richard in- he found the half-dead girl in the cupboard and turned his own brother in. He says his mother knew all along. We feel sorry for this poor, strange and certainly below-average intelligent boy and we even feel a little sorry for the neutered criminal.

Then suddenly whilst in his brother's embrace, Richard the raper regains himself, or that which he has never lost, that which he has only been faking and kills his poor brother on the spot.

He then launches into a ferocious monologue terrifying his rapt audience.

"He was lying you know, he knew all along. He had a go on her himself. He just panicked when the stupid slut died."

Cue more moral questioning from the audience as we know he speaks the truth.

On and on and on he goes, evil to the core as he threatens to kill various members of the team.

Then suddenly we leave them. Aware that dawn is breaking and the experiment has not worked. How will this end?

The lights are down and we hear the sound of a wall moving as the entire right hand side of the stage area is pulled back to reveal the theatre - or where the audience usually sit. We are on the stage. Rows and rows of blank seats stare back at us as we look right, feeling observed, feeling part of the whole experiment.

Then up in the circle, we see two of the guards sitting watching us. They are talking as-if outside the prison where media and protestors are waiting and apparently ambulances and police.

"I filled the syringes with water. I sabotaged it. I couldn't let this happen, I couldn't let out society regress." He speaks over the empty stalls.

"And now they are all dead” says the other, "what was the point. Your own selfish heroic cause; that was not the way you should have done it!"

Really that is all I remember. And then we, the audience filed out, numb from it. Too many questions, too much to think-over and no signposts to tell us what we should think. That I believe is a sign of good theatre.

What made the play so successful is not only the topsy-turvy, disorientating staging, but the class of the actors - particularly the wonderful Leo Bill as Richard who had us all thrilled, Billy Seymour played the part of his mentally disabled brother sensitively with no clich├ęs and Cara Hogan as the governor has an alarming presence on stage- wonderful acting.

The music and staging was also extremely successful, each item, each chorus necessary not over-cluttered, forcing us to focus on the action.

I'm not going to pretend it was a happy experience, it was not. I laughed, cried and was horror-struck and afraid in equal measure. It took two bottles of wine afterwards for my friend and I to feel near to normal. But it was a powerful performance that I'd certainly recommend.

Roll on Show 4... Coming soon

More on the cast and crew here...

Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King St, London W6 0QL

Images are all (c) The Lyric on Flickr 

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