Review: Secret Theatre: A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts
Relentless buzz has stalked Secret Theatre from the Lyric Hammersmith to the Edinburgh Fringe and beyond, with any expectation of secrecy now lost. Ascending the endless flights of stairs to reach an inauspicious rehearsal room, away from the Royal Exchange’s main site, I did know beforehand that a randomly selected performer would be subjected to ‘impossible acts’. But the emergent ‘acts’ were not simply a presumed spectacle of circus acts, but a multitude of performative interpretations and expressions of the ‘act’ explored: narrative acts, gender acts, enactment of fears and joy—even past acts to be relived. While the detail of each ‘act’ is unique to the day’s performer, the piece’s ultimate strength lies in affecting audience beyond the experience of a chosen participant, evolving into something outstanding—a reminder of our own messy, collective humanity.
Out of the nine-strong, gym kit-clad ensemble, the night’s ‘protagonist’ was Hammed. His immediate reframing, from ensemble presence to unique aura, immediately prompts a thought: will he or won’t he achieve the impossible? Within the appearance of an appropriated classroom, eating a lemon and bending a bar becomes an anarchic PE lesson permeated by a failure to achieve. The ensemble ask Hammed everything, questioning as if a personal Quizoola!, from the story of his first kiss to his greatest fears—that are literally wrestled with on a crash mat.
In the most astonishing fragment, Hammed answers questions framed as dialogue from a past, assumingly real relationship. He is heartbreakingly forced to re-enact the entire decay, from love-struck to the inevitable love-loss. Revisiting a mirage of your past in performance, from passion to pity in just two minutes, is devastating for audience and performer. Unsurprisingly, at the performance’s close Hammed, also the youngest of the company, is emotionally and physically drained. Like The Events, these slippages of reality are vital for audience empathy and understanding, but here the pathos is always balanced with innocent joy. The final, emancipatory dance was breathtaking, as if cleansing and celebrating all that came before.
I am attempting to not to reveal too much—for this piece particularly, there should be some surprises—but be sure that by the end, completion of the impossible is irrelevant. Hope envelops fear. Humanist comradeship pervades all. This daring, versatile performance group provides pure delight, that must be seen to be believed.