Lyric Hammersmith, London
Theatre review: Secret Theatre - Show 3
Echoes of Orton in a delightfully dark comedy
Monday 28 October 2013
This is the third instalment in the adventurous Secret Theatre repertory that the Lyric is presenting during its rebuild. You are invited to make a blind date with shows that are advertised by number only – though, in this case, there's a teasing come-on on the website and flyers in the shape of the question: "Your last meal: what would it be?"
Here, too, the sense of slightly nervous anticipation that springs from not knowing what you are about to see is intensified by the feeling of dislocation that comes from not knowing precisely where you are.
The audience is led round the outside of the building, through the stage door and up many flights of stairs to what is apparently a stark studio space. You're confronted by an execution chamber, replete with a gurney and a stand full of syringes, and by an observation room. After roughed-up, radical revivals of two classics, the season comes into its own now with Chamber Piece, a new play purpose-built for the 10-strong rep company by Caroline Bird.
Set in the near future, it's an Ortonesque pitch-black comedy in which a monstrously ambitious prison governor (superb Cara Horgan) is desperate to make her name by successfully trialling the reintroduction of the death penalty to the UK. The test case is Richard Sanger (Leo Bill) who raped and murdered a teenager. We watch the eight injections being systematically administered. The result would be a huge feather in her cap, if the prisoner's heart were not still inconveniently beating.
The Sanger who revives is a mild-mannered, amnesiac simpleton. But, in surges of outrageous farce, the manic Governor will stop at nothing to have him proved sane before the 24-hour execution warrant expires. The hapless wardens are ordered to simulate sexual assault to try and jog his memory.
Steven Webb's very funny, dithering doctor is blackmailed into agonised accommodations with his conscience. Bird writes with a fearless wit and in exuberantly bad taste, taking a spirited swipe at the amorality of officials who see their role as purely auxiliary ("I grease the wheels regardless of your vehicle") and at the collusion between the tabloid press and reactionary government.
I was less convinced by the final section where the debate about capital punishment turns violently confrontational, but Sean Holmes's astringent production ends with a spectacular scenic coup de théâtre that puts your relationship to the proceedings in a startlingly new and implicating perspective.
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