Secret Theatre is a relatively new US outfit who, under various names, have put on plays in both New York City and Hollywood. Now they have come to London to stage an immersive version of Reservoir Dogs in an old east-end warehouse, and to say it doesn’t work is to do a terrible disservice to broken things everywhere.
Exactly which Tarantino film they were putting on was kept secret from the audience until after they bought tickets, but seeing as the event is marketed as a site-specific production staged in a warehouse, it doesn’t take the most powerful brain in London to guess which of his eight films it was likely to be. As well as secret, it is also meant to be an immersive experience, which draws in the audience and makes them feel part of the performance – we were even given a dress code and aliases. This, let me be clear, is a massive overstatement. Five minutes after turning up it became profoundly clear that there was nothing laid on to interact with whatsoever, so for 45 minutes we all just sat there and waited for the performance to start. Waited and sipped glasses of red wine while wondering whether or not to buy a Kit-Kat Chunky from the impromptu tuck shop set up behind the rows of seats – I’m not sure how that fits in with the immersive ethos.
Still, I might be wrong about the lack of immersive elements: there was a woman stalking around before the play started – and during the interminable interval, where we were basically told to talk among ourselves for 30 minutes – who was swearing into a phone and generally making people feel uncomfortable. But she had nothing to do with the story or any of the characters as far as I could tell – in fact, as I write this, I am not 100 per cent sure she was part of the performance at all; she might have just been a disgruntled spectator.
Tarantino’s script has been adapted so that the action takes place in London, and not in LA. Therefore, we get a lot of tacked on references to ‘coppers’ and not ‘cops’, to ‘geezers’ and not ‘guys’, and to ‘old boozers’ in Soho rather than ‘two-bit diners’ in South Central – it has all the authenticity and nuance of a pantomime script.
The acting, as a result, has a curiously uneven quality, with the performers trying to marry the rhythm of Tarantino’s cool, American lines with a hard, British vernacular:
— “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy, or are you going to bite?”
— “Nah, bruv.”
The upshot is that actors are completely hamstrung before they begin. Harry Kerr (Mr Pink); Stanley J Browne (Mr White); and Sureni Kay (a sort of composite Mr Brown and Mr Blue, played by a woman) all manage to make a descent fist of it, but mostly the tone of the performances are apologetic rather than commanding.
In fact, it’s the tone of the production that leads us to its biggest failing: the lack of real directorial control. The programme names not one but two directors, yet neither has managed to take the play by the lapels. The pacing is all over the place, and some of the performances – like Alexander Gordon-Wood’s Joe, played like psychopathic Billy Connolly – feel like they’re not just in a different play to the others, but that they exist in a different theatrical universe. The blocking is awkward, with characters frequently pacing around and getting in the way of each other, and the props are laughably bad. Actually, they are so laughably bad, that I don’t think there could have been any dress of technical rehearsals whatsoever. In the infamous scene where Mr Blonde (Sven Anger) cuts off the ear of the hostaged policeman, Anger pulls out what can only be described as a tiny joke knife. He then does the deed and walks away with an appallingly fake ear, covered in bright, cherry-red blood.
London certainly needs more fresh and innovative approaches to theatre-making, and I commend the spirit with which Secret Theatre has tried to this, but this is not the production to showcase the power of immersive or site-specific theatre. It’s still early in the run, and I’m confident much of what I thought was wrong with it can be ironed out, but as is it’s drastically under-baked.