West London’s Lyric Hammersmith is holding a Secret Theatre season while its building is redeveloped, using the upheaval as a chance to explore new ways of working. First up are two classic texts, re-imagined – and billed as Show 1 and Show 2 so the audience may watch “unsullied by expectations” (although in an age of Twitter, they haven’t stayed secret long).
Director Sean Holmes has said that he intends to challenge the very structures of British theatre, which is to be applauded; a fresh, questioning approach is surely always a good thing. But, having seen Show 1 (pictured, right), I feel compelled to report that it didn’t feel very fresh. Actors snuffle around in underwear, throw water about, run in circles at the end of a tether ... There’s a whiff of a student production’s bid to be “experimental”, but it’ll take more than dancing around in animal onesies to appeal to the yoof. I’m sure the process of exploration was valuable to the ensemble, but it didn’t seem to benefit the audience much.
Which highlights a wider problem with such projects. London audiences are already over-catered for; you could go to the theatre every night and still not have an exhaustive view of our capitals’ thriving, varied scene (which, what’s more, features plenty of reinventions of classic texts; right now, there’s a wild Woyzeck in Punchdrunk’s The Drowning Man, while a bonkers update of Edward II plays at the National). So why shell out for the random unknown? The same question was prompted by the Royal Court’s similarly shake-it-up Open Court season, which included a series of one-off, semi-staged performances, unannounced till the curtain went up.
And it is a case of shelling out: a £10 or £15 ticket may not be expensive by West End standards, but it’s not insignificant if you’re a student, unemployed, low-waged or endlessly interning – as many of Sean Holmes’s desired young audience almost certainly will be.
The night I watched Show 1, the stalls were half-full, and the crowd was indeed young(ish). But that crowd was also, I’d guess, an already-invested, knowledgeable, theatrical in-crowd: 20-or-30-something arts professionals who want in on the debate.
It’s great that that debate is going on, but Secret Theatre hardly seems likely to expand the terms, or the audience.