Stepping into the Ovalhouse downstairs, a pinpoint spotlight highlights the head and torso of a wild-haired baby doll affixed to a pedestal. If you look long enough, rather than thumbing through your programme or trying to wiggle past Ovalhouse’s extremely awkward bench seats, you may then notice a trio of black-clad actors wearing claws and beaks, seated on black boxes strewn across the black floor and almost invisible against the black walls.
You may well think, from this cold opening scene, that The Secret Keeper is going to be quite strange and grim. But writer, co-director (along with Lucy J. Skilbeck) and star Angela Clerkin has crafted more of a fairy tale, although certainly one that takes its cues from the Brothers Grimm rather than Disney. But a hefty helping of cheerful, winking irony keeps the overall tone much more fun than the set and dim lighting first suggest.
Clerkin’s once upon a time – “Far enough away,” she adds, “that you needn’t think this story has anything to do with you,” – takes us to an odd kingdom where a little girl just wants to find a way to make her silent, grieving father happy. Clerkin’s earnest narration masterfully sets the tone, but what the story itself really entails takes longer to unfold. Within the first scene, many potential plot seeds are planted: might this be a murder mystery about the death of the little girl’s uncle? The portrait of the dissolution of a marriage, as the girl’s mother strains to reach her retreating husband? A tale of revenge, as we learn her father is widely suspected of his brother’s death?
But it turns out to be none of these. It’s the story of a miracle: the miracle of unburdening yourself from your secrets and sins. The little girl (played by Clerkin with a splendidly genuine mix of innocence and selfishness that allows her to seem childish without a cloying little-girl voice or physicality) is blessed with this gift. Anyone who confides in her finds that they are set free.
As the above might suggest, Clerkin is plainly bursting with ideas, and she has found a structure that mostly allows her to accommodate them all by giving the girl’s parents and the various townspeople (all played by Niall Ashdown, Hazel Maycock, and Anne Odeke) each their moment in the spotlight to share their secret. But there are too many threads to satisfactorily pull together, and the secrets are deployed for shock value rather than mined for their repercussions or used to illuminate character. Clerkin is clearly working in fairytale archetypes, of course, and her intent is similarly framed: to use broad strokes, not intimate portraits, to show how secrets are both destructive and necessary.
This wisp of a premise doesn’t need to be two hours long, and the interval disrupts the momentum. Snipping out the unnecessary and flatly-written songs would be a good start to trimming it down to a single act. Overall streamlining would also help it to clip along at a pace that better matches Clerkin’s cheeky wit, and allow some of the immensely clever sequences to better stand out.
Or perhaps Clerkin wants to lean into the complications, shedding fairytale simplicity and diving wholeheartedly into the cast of intriguing characters and darkly whimsical mythology she has so lovingly crafted and only has time to glance at (I, for one, want an entire play about the Innkeeper’s Wife and her Constant Companion). But it needs to be one or the other.
The Secret Keeper describes itself as a “gothic fairytale,” and the clash between the clean simplicity of a fairytale and the sprawling intrigue of a gothic is what makes the piece stumble. But it is a stumble, not a collapse. Just like in the play itself, you can trust the Secret Keeper – more or less.
The Secret Keeper is on until 21 October 2017 at Ovalhouse. Click here for more details.