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SECRET THEATRE – Secret Studio Lab, London.


Secret Studio LabA secret location, a closely-guarded plot line and the need for sensible shoes – music to the ears of any immersive Theatre fan. Secret Studio Lab have a few productions under their belt on both sides of the Atlantic, and the latest Secret Theatre promises a visit to a city island to immerse yourself in their summer tragedy of love. But the biggest tragedy of all is that this production massively under-delivers on several aspects vital to immersive theatre.

I’m not sure what came first: the choice of play, or the location – but neither really compliments the other. The key to successful site-specific work is to create something which nestles perfectly in its setting – to make it feel as if the piece were written just for that space. So a marketing suite for the swanky new blocks of flats being built on City Island, surrounded by a moat of gravel, and desolate concrete piles with steel girders protruding through the ground isn’t exactly an obvious choice for the text in question, even if the story is set in East London. If you are going to stage the work on an island, there are other more fitting texts in this playwright’s repertoire.

The culture clash between two families presents an interesting concept: there are some stunning costumes which add colour and vibrancy. The absence of a programme does make it difficult to identify the actors, but there are a few notable performances: The suitably stern and pious father, The reckless and swaggering party-boy, and the actor who doubles as both a simple-yet-eccentric member of the family and then a very solemn Imam. By contrast, the leads have little discernible romantic chemistry. But what it lacks in passion it makes up for in violence with some brutal fight scenes.

The lighting is a bit hit and miss, perhaps as a result of making do with what’s there: we are treated to the first act in a glorious blazing sunset, but once the darkness sets in we hit a few obstacles. The lighting shows off the buildings, not the actors. There are a few happy accidents where this really works for the scene (particularly between the daughter and the Imam), at other times it sucks out all the atmosphere.

The main difficulty with this production is the gravel: once the novelty of the unusual location has worn off and we’ve latched onto the storyline, it soon grows tiresome. It’s noisy and frequently drowns out the voices of the actors. While a change of location is often a welcome thing in a promenade piece, by the end of the evening it feels time-consuming and arbitrary. Actors don’t always arrive promptly to start the next scene, leaving the audience unsure whether to stay put or follow the departing character.

All combined, it’s a little incongruous and the pace feels sluggish, particularly in the overlong second half – with a running time of 3 hours including an interval, the whole experience is endured rather than enjoyed. The run is mostly sold out, but those who flock to anything labelled immersive may find themselves asking: “Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

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Reviewed 02/08/2015

By Gail Bishop

1st August – 1st September 2015
Secret Studio Lab, London, E14.

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