In 2013 London’s Lyric Theatre closed for a redevelopment. During this time the Artistic Director, Sean Holmes, decided to create an ensemble of actors, directors, designers and writers to try new and different ways of making theatre. The result was Secret Theatre: a repertory of shows with numbers in the place of their titles.
Over the last fortnight I caught three of the five Secret Theatre shows playing at the Oxford Playhouse, the first venue to receive the collection of shows outside of London.
From the selection I saw, none of the pieces came across as though they were pushing very hard at the boundaries of theatre making. However, I think this is a good thing – if an audience is going to risk seeing something totally unexpected there is only so far you should probe them. There is risk within Secret Theatre, but is taken when booking for the unknown, not in the content of what you end up sitting down to discover. Not that the content was in any way at all poor; it was high-quality theatre with compelling, raw energy.
Of the ones I watched, Show 2 was a modern take on a classic American play that was so refreshingly staged that it took me a good half hour to realise and come to terms with the fact that the script was unchanged. Show 6’s writing was slightly too typical of its playwright and so immediately this pigeonholed it into a certain type of political, inyerface theatre. It was an intense and layered piece, with good pace but simply not something I am particular a fan of. Show 3 demonstrated astonishing new writing, with uncomfortably funny dark humour. It was edgy, provocative, and hilarious – though could have ended 10 or so minutes sooner as the end was slightly laboured.
Repertory theatre and resident companies, which are common in other parts of Europe, used to be quite standard in the UK, but nowadays they are far and few between. Seeing actors play multiple roles within one production can highlight their versatility, but watching the same actors across several productions is an even more exciting experience and really shines a light on actors’ craft. Perhaps this is also why the commissioned play worked the best: it was written with the cast in mind, and made the benefits of having a resident company most noticeable and relevant. Additionally, having the same team of designers created an overarching aesthetic and brand, so although the shows were all different they were unified by the same stark, bold and contemporary look.
Some of the other theatres receiving the Secret Theatre tour next are already advertising the show titles on their websites and in their marketing. Oxford Playhouse deserves extra thanks for playing the game, keeping the secret and pushing the Oxford audience to try something new - Secret Theatre is well worth taking an unknowing punt on.