Monday, May 16, 2016

'A Secret Life' at Theatre503, 13th May 2016

Being privy to someone's innermost thoughts is the ultimate in voyeurism. What strangeness would you could peer inside the head of random strangers. Degrading sexual fantasies? Manic religious bliss? Deep seated misanthropy or simply an idle pondering on whether to order pizza or curry for dinner?

A Secret Life by Baseless Fabric attempts to simulate this most intimate of insights. Before the show you download an app onto your smart phone, which allows the theatre to play audio files through your headphones. Once that's set up you hit the streets of Battersea and meet Audrey (Maggie Turner), a septuagenarian grandmother and lifetime resident of the neighbourhood.

The app provides a window into her internal monologue as she ambles through the parks and streets. Places she passes conjure up memories: walking through Battersea Park she talks about the heavy snow in 1947, or the first place she kissed a boy or had a miserable job. The tone is melancholic and we quickly surmise that Audrey is not a particularly happy person.

Combining promenade theatre and technology like this is a fantastic idea for a production and, as someone who craves new experiences, I’d been looking forward to immensely. To me the dramatic possibilities of using an app to hear a character’s inner thoughts are obvious and exciting. Imagine watching an on stage dramatised marital argument and instantly being able to find out the neuroses, secrets and lies that're fuelling it. 

The show started promisingly. In a group of 15 we filed out to the junction outside the theatre, waiting for the show to begin. An old man in eccentric cod-military dress and a Chairman Mao cap wandered past us - was he part of the show? Was everyone? Soon enough Audrey showed up and we began silently following her at a slight distance as she began her perambulation.

The uniqueness of the situation carries the show quite a long way. Audrey munches on a Mars bar and rebelliously thinks that no-one can stop her doing this now, gazes into a churchyard and remembers that it was once full of flowers and cynically judges the 'yummy Mummies' sweatily emerging from Battersea Yoga. 

But predictably, the novelty soon wears off  and you're faced with an experience that feels pretty much like you're taking a stroll while listening to a Radio 4 afternoon drama. Maggie Turner gets a couple of moments where she wistfully stares at something, but due to the fact that we're usually directly behind her we can't see her emoting, which somewhat disconnects the audio we're hearing from the person we're watching.

Worse, while I can't argue that Tamara Micner's script is evocative and detailed, it doesn't really go anywhere, is firmly stuck in a downer gear and (though I hate to use this word) is a teensy bit boring. Given that we're hearing the character's thoughts it's easy to relate to Audrey, but frankly there are times where the show is doing a strikingly accurate simulation of being stuck in conversation with a nice old lady on the bus. She's personable enough, but the cycle of "of course, we didn’t have X in those days..." gets a bit repetitive.

The show eventually leads us into a pub, where where we observe Audrey and her granddaughter Ruby (Phoebe McIntosh), where they chat about exam pressure and her parent’s alcoholic bickering. Perhaps compounded by the onset of technical issues due to a sudden lack of mobile signal, the finale confused the hell out of me. During this conversation the audio switches between the conversation the two are having and Audrey's thoughts; it's difficult to follow and feels like a breach of 'rules' of the play. McIntosh and Turner do an impressive job of lipsyncing to this dialogue, but it's difficult to follow the thread of the scene or characters, which terminates abruptly and confusingly (marking the end of the play)

By the time that happened I was pretty nonplussed with the whole affair. Essentially A Secret Life feels more like a prototype for a future show than a complete performance. But even beyond that, it's just not a hugely compelling piece of drama. I can't fault the performers or the assistants that guide the audience through parks or over roads, but I found myself wanting something a little more dynamic rather than a largely humourless trudge with a depressed 71 year old.

Experiences like A Secret Life  are going to be the future of theatre. Immersive theatre doesn't look like it's going to abate anytime soon, and combining fleet-footed responsiveness, personalised dramatic experiences and new(ish) technology will create a bold new world of plays that are as much influenced by Skyrim as they are Shakespeare.

The future is bright, but in the present A Secret Life is sadly more a great idea than a great play. 


A Secret Life was part of the Wandsworth Fringe.

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