Saturday, 26 October 2013

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 3

I've had a numerically-themed week at the theatre, with 1984 on Thursday, Two on Friday and Show 3 tonight. But I'm about to spoil the pattern because, as with all the Secret Theatre shows, I'll be ditching the code number after the text break and calling the show by its real title. So if you're planning to see it yourself and want it to stay a secret, this is as far as you should read.

After expressionistic reinterpretations of classic texts for the first two productions, Show 3 is what, in the vaguest sense, I'd been hoping would be next: A new play. And Caroline Bird's Chamber Piece hasn't just been commissioned for the Lyric's project, but also clearly written with this specific ten-strong ensemble in mind. One grumble I do have right off the bat is with the publicity - after all the controversy about a spoilsport critic tweeting the real title of Show 2 on Press Night, it's almost as if the Lyric have got in first and done a bit of spoiling themselves: The publicity on the website and in the foyer for Show 3 has had the tagline "Your last meal: What would it be?" prominently displayed, which immediately made me think we were in for a show about capital punishment, so if walking into the space to see an execution chamber set up was meant to be one of the surprises, it didn't work. I was also unsurprised a few minutes later to see that the ensemble member who was going to be strapped in to the chair was Leo Bill, but that wasn't down to spoilers. Some people just have those kinds of faces.

We're not in a US prison's Death Row but a temporary facility in a slightly-in-the-future UK. A couple of years previously, a particularly catastrophic terrorist attack resulted in the death penalty being brought back as a one-off for its perpetrators. But it's inevitably opened the floodgates, and now Richard Sanger (Bill) is the test case for bringing capital punishment back for good. A rapist and murderer, if his lethal injection goes as planned the Governor (Cara Horgan) could end up in charge of her own super-prison. But of course it doesn't go right, in a blacker-than-black comedy where all the necessary poisons get injected into Sanger, but he just won't die.

Although the subject seems to be specifically a theoretical return of the death penalty, Bird's real concerns are more immediate, ranging from the selling-off of the NHS to the collusion between the Press' scaremongering and the interests of those in power.

Bird has created a collection of comic grotesques carefully tailored to the ensemble's talents, led by Horgan's monstrously ambitious Governor. Bill's heavily tattooed killer turns childlike simpleton when the drugs fail, Steven Webb's out-of-his-depth doctor is flustered when his job turns out to involve more than just pronouncing a man dead, and Charlotte Josephine's ex-con turned guard is sweetly eager and ripe for exploitation. Next to the execution chamber is a further collection of characters who've been serving as witnesses, including Sergo Vares as a singularly unhelpful Spiritual Advisor and Sanger's mentally unstable brother (Billy Seymour,) all stirred up by a gleeful Journalist (Adelle Leonce.) And knowing who she was writing for means Bird has been able to show just how no-holds-barred her approach is, so as if death and sexual violence weren't dark enough targets for humour, Nadia Albina's real-life disability is just as fair game.

The first two shows were presented in the Lyric's main auditorium, albeit a cut-down version. Chamber Piece goes for something a bit more intimate, with the audience being taken to a different secret location, one that's not too had to guess but which I won't give away anyway as Sean Holmes' production utilises it effectively in a final disorientating stroke. Bird succumbs to the temptation of over-explaining the play's themes in a chilling speech from Bill near the end, and as with anything this near-the-knuckle sometimes the results are just uncomfortable rather than hard-hitting, but overall Chamber Piece is a winning contribution to the season, and one that restores a bit of faith that we really won't be able to predict what's coming next until the curtain goes up.

Chamber Piece by Caroline Bird is booking in repertory until the 5th of November at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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