Review: Secret Theatre, The Rag Yard, London E1

Note: Because of this play’s supposed “secret” nature, I should warn that this review talks about specifics of the play, including its title and characters. I also explain why, but if you want to see a spoiler-free review you should go elsewhere.

The Lyric Hammersmith has been running a series of “secret theatre” projects recently – encouraging people to book tickets without knowing what they’ll be seeing, and as a result come to a piece with little to no preconceptions built up in their heads.

This Secret Theatre project is not like that. It was, I was told by the PR, more modelling itself on Secret Cinema. This series shows movies in suitably appropriate surroundings, but also with a deeply immersive experience that is just as entertaining, if not more so, than the film itself. So The Shawshank Redemption is presented in an old prison, Bugsy Malone in a speakeasy, Blade Runner in a grimy, industrial near-future where oriental noodle bars rub shoulders with security agents scanning all visitors for signs of replicant behaviour.

So we were expecting a similarly immersive experience for this piece, and notifications of dress codes and secret identities fed into this.

What we got instead was a straightforward play. A truly immersive piece needs to do more than say, “Oh, this piece about the aftermath of a botched heist is set in a warehouse, so let’s stage it in a warehouse”. Especially when that warehouse already hosts events, drama classes and art exhibitions, and the play itself is staged so conventionally.

So the failed promise of an immersive experience was a huge let-down. And that was a shame, because the play itself – an adaptation of a justly popular film – has the potential to be a great stage piece. As presented here, it’s still some way from that – but I think the false promise of an immersive experience will cloud the audience’s judgement of what this show has the potential to be.

And it’s all the more bizarre that the “secret theatre” concept also robs this production of its biggest appeal. I’m not going to beat about the bush any longer: if you go to this play knowing what it is, if you read about this play knowing what it is, it’ll be better for everybody.

Because I, for one, would bite someone’s hand off if they offered me the opportunity to see a stage adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s first feature film, Reservoir Dogs.

The predominantly British cast wisely choose not to pretend to be in the film’s LA environs: dialogue changes here and there (some slick, othrs far clunkier) relocate the story to East London. The majority of the action takes place after the criminal gang’s attempted diamond robbery has gone wrong: the members individually make their way back to their warehouse rendezvous, wondering whether the heist’s failure was down to one member of the gang being a police informer.

The distorted time narrative of the film, which seemed so unusual when we first saw it on screen, feels natural for theatre: the occasional flashbacks to see how crime boss Joe (Alexander Gordon-Wood) recruited his team are a device that we’re far more accustomed to seeing on stage than on film. Such a shame, though, that the unimaginative use of the warehouse space led to these sequences being shunted off to one side, where even from my front row seat it was a strain to see what was going on.

Some additions, including a framing narration from Kevin Kinson as the police lieutenant who has placed the critical undercover cop into the gang, work well to convert the film narrative into one for the stage. Switching one of the lead roles from a man to a woman (Sureni Key’s Sky, who becomes “Mr Blue”) works far better than one might have supposed. Ultimately, though, by far the most interesting and arresting storyline is the burgeoning bromance between Stanley J Browne’s Larry (“Mr White”) and Andrew Lancaster’s Freddie, the undercover cop who becomes “Mr Orange”, and who spends much of the play pretending to slowly bleed out in front of us.

Elsewhere, Sven Anger’s Teutonic ear-cutting psycopath is an interesting take on the role, and Harry Kerr’s Mr Pink is a raucous live wire. In several ensemble scenes, though, the pace falters as actors finish their lines and wait for the next character to speak – a far cry from the freneticism of Tarantino’s style of directing the dialogue, which is such an intrinsic part of his work.

Ultimately, I think Reservoir Dogs is a piece which has the capability to be a great stage adaptation of a classic film – but this production feels some way short. Drop the pretence of immersion and attack it like a bloody good play, and you’d end up with a far better result.

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