If you have started this review by mixing Secret Theatre up with Secret Cinema, you’d be forgiven for carrying this bemusement all the way to top secret venue in Dalston. Like Secret Cinema, Secret Theatre base their productions on films – or, in this case, a novel well known for its film adaptation. Working with a smaller budget means they either have to show considerable ingenuity and flexibility, or risk flopping entirely. The latter was certainly the case with Secret Theatre’s previous offering, a baggy, confused adaptation of Se7en.
Thankfully, Secret Theatre: Project Mayhem fares much better as a production. At the risk of spoiling the ‘secret’ element, I won’t mention the title of the novel/film it is based on, but if you haven’t worked it out within two minutes of walking through the doors, there’s not going to be much hope for you.
Because although the venue is atmospheric, the sets are creative, the actors are a delight to be around and the immersive element – more on which later – is far better handled than many works of purportedly ‘immersive’ theatre, the narrative, or at least this adaptation of the narrative, which strives to keep the main characters from the original source, well, main, is a crumbling mess. If you don’t know the plot of [redacted], you’re going to be really confused as to why two seemingly minor characters – whose personalities are barely fleshed out – have so many problems, hold so much sway over the rest of the cast, and are allowed to deliver monologues which only make sense if you’ve already read or seen [redacted]. There are a couple of scenes featuring these main characters in which you can see audience members familiar with [redacted] quietly returning to their memories of the novel/film to make sense of what’s in front of them, seemingly watching a screen behind their eyes rather than the action itself.
This is unfortunate, because the central idea behind Project Mayhem is fun and well executed. Its dynamic is closer to that of an interactive game with story elements than a piece of narrative theatre. It would have worked just as well disposing with the story’s characters and making a piece in the same universe of [redacted], with original characters. Audience members are encouraged to move around the space and interact with different performers, many of whom will set simple tasks or encourage inter-audience conversation. The fully acted scenes – by which I mean scenes that see actors interacting only with one another, rather than the audience – don’t require a sudden, slapdash rebuilding of the fourth wall, and fit the conceit fairly seamlessly.
There are some excellent performances from the cast – Ged Forrest is both gruff and gentle, playing a side character who should be dismissable with surprising (and eventually vital) nuance and conviction; Ric Renton is compelling, alarming and commanding; Taz Hussein endearing and tragically convincing; Jessica Alonso singlehandedly keeps a few sagging transitions and awkward interactions alive with astounding, unhinged energy; Elliot Rodriguez makes lightning fast transitions from ironic and approachable to militant and In The Zone. It is important to draw out and praise these performances, because they (and others) are the ones that keep an otherwise potentially silly evening afloat. It is these performances that invite curiosity, interaction and, yes, ‘immersion’ from the audience, without which there would just be a lot of embarrassed standing around. Project Mayhem’s particular set-up, both structurally and physically, rewards initiative and even a bit of troublemaking from the audience, and it requires good improv skills and crowd management, as well as acting talent, to respond to it.
Reviewing a piece about which I can say almost nothing without giving the game away is a bit of a challenge. Richard Crawford’s vision for the set is grim, military and spare, and it works. Matthew Mckay and Alex Payne’s movement direction is a cornerstone of the piece, and thankfully lives up to this. Due to the nature of Project Mayhem’s source, there is a lot of excitable shouting from cast and audience alike. Yelling is at the heart of a large number of the scenes. At one point I had to wipe a smear of fake blood from my companion’s forehead. There’s a bar. There is nothing more I can say without giving it away entirely. My advice is: ignore [redacted]. The whole piece, though it could not have existed without [redacted], would be better off not trying to match the narrative complexities of [redacted]. And bring cash for the bar.
Secret Theatre: Project Mayhem is on until 21 August 2017. Click here for more details.