Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Secret Theatre Show One, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: Secret Theatre Show One, Lyric Hammersmith

If you want to go in blind, why read a review you have to go out of your way to find? Spoilers. Obvs.

Show One of the Secret Theatre project is, let’s be totally honest, a bit of a shambles. OK, it’s quite a lot of a shambles. That’s not entirely a bad thing and Sean Holmes and his Secret Theatre ensemble have earned the right to fail, so it would be both unfair and inaccurate to  dismiss the whole out of hand – just as glossing over the problems out of partisan loyalty would be unhelpful. There are flashes of piercing insight and theatricality here, but, for the most part, the first effort gets sucked up its own fundament. Holmes and co. have forgotten their audience and, as a result, Show One proves a rather frustrating watch.

Show One is George Buchner’s Woyzeck – David Harrower’s version, for the record. It’s a fragmented (originally unfinished) play about a young man, a soldier, who murders his wife after she has an affair with a drum major. However, it’s set apart by its expressionist splatter and its fierce, underlying social critique: Woyzeck is kept firmly in his place by a hierarchical society that places a foot on his head, until something snaps.

The latter is made eloquently explicit by a vivid central image. Billy Seymour’s Woyzeck – young, pasty and reedy-voiced as opposed to the usual weathered shire horse of a man – spends most of the play running in circles, harnessed to a bungee chord. He is a hamster in a wheel, a workhorse hooked up to a mill. He follows the only path available to him and gets nowhere at a steady pace. A video camera watches over him. Objects are placed just out of his reach. Others – the doctor controlling his diet, the officer he serves, the drum major that cuckolds him – weave through his space as they please. On Woyzeck jogs. Until eventually, he unclips himself. And goes postal.

In fairness, there’s a fairly robust core to this Woyzeck that really prods at the play’s ingrained arguments. Holmes kneads away at several lines of thought around this central pillar: one about humans as animals, governed by hedonistic impulses and Pavlovian conditioning; another about the uniforms that impose social hierarchies. There’s a strong argument about the ability to self-define, with the most in-control, controlling characters wearing the opposite sex’s clothes (“I’m a man,” asserts Charlotte Josephine’s Drum Major, daring Seymour to say otherwise as he cops a handful of breast.). That’s juxtaposed with Woyzeck’s wife Marie (Katherine Pearce), who undergoes an X Factor starlet’s makeover, as if falling into the aspirations imposed on her by society. (You can’t help but think of Gareth Malone’s Military Wives choir.) Meanwhile, the video camera begs questions of controlling mechanisms; its omniscience raising the spectre of both Orwellian CCTV and its precursor, religion. It ends with a wistful rendition of PJ Harvey’s England (“You leave a taste / A bitter one”) that gives it all a state of the nation twist, which comes as a stinging accusation, even if it feels tacked on and not unlike Newman and Baddiel’s ‘That’s you that is’ catchphrase. So, yes. There’s a good deal of smart stuff going on.

The trouble is all this only crystallises afterwards, once all the irrelevances and excess noise have faded from memory – a process that takes less than two days. In the actual moment of watching, you’re left desperately scrambling for clues about where to focus and how to watch. It’s as if the play’s every component part has been put through an Enigma machine, so that they no longer talk to one another onstage. You’re working so hard to decode the images that there’s scarcely headspace left to take in the text itself, leaving the interrogation of the play stuck at a generic level. The whole production lacks a sense of internal logic and a decent recurring motif or two for the sake of precision. It often seems, as Woyzeck says (so maybe it’s intentional), like “one thing after another.”

Besides, too many of the images within – no matter how much they signify – are just too flat or confused to register. People pouring glasses of water over their heads? Too small. Nadia Albina leaking during an aerial routine like an incontinent Fairy Godmother? Too bizarre. The (gorgeous) a capella pop and German traditional songs? Too unrecognisable. It can be – um – boring. The point is that every crucial moment, every core scene needs to become its own routine to land. Every key sequence must be eloquent and memorable. Too few manage it. Too many bits and bobs intrude, noisily, crowding out sense. The design’s lacklustre too: Hyemi Shin’s plastic tarpaulin does little more than make a black box studio of the Lyric main stage and her costume design is limp and unspecific. Of all the animal onesies in Primark, why dress Woyzeck and Marie in ape and tiger costumes? Why not doctor the doctor’s white coat somehow? It’s all a bit blank and, frankly, cheap.

If they’re to convert non-theatregoers and other sceptics, the Secret Theatre company need more dramaturgical rigour and still more invention. Big asks, I know, but the actual scale of their task – to create a year’s programming worthy of the Lyric’s main stage singlehandedly – has only just become apparent. There’s no doubt Show One flickers with potential, but as yet, its neither sustained or controlled or urgent. There’s hope, then, but there’s a lot of work to do.

Photograph: Alexandra Davenport

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