I want to talk about Secret Theatre Show 5, or A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. Trouble is, I can’t really do so without talking a bit about myself, because my experience of the show has been so bound up with the last three months of my life. So forgive me.
I feel like, for a number of reasons, it’s only through the prism of my own experience that I can discuss this extraordinary piece of work with any honesty. I’ve seen it three times now, but each time I’ve had a totally different reaction which, on reflection, has totally responded to how I was feeling at the time. It’s key strength lies in the fact that it morphs and changes with your own experience, and in doing so proves that all theatre is subjective and can be interpreted in any number of different ways. Show 5 is ‘about’ whatever you want it to be about.
The first time I saw Show 5 was only the second time it had ever been in front of an audience. It was fresh, alive and – sometimes – seat-of-the-pants stuff, which was exacerbated by the nature of the show, involving as it does a large amount of improvisation. For those of you who haven’t yet seen A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts (and if you haven’t I suggest you stop reading now and go and get a ticket), the ‘protagonist’ is chosen at random from the ten-strong ensemble, then taken on a journey through a number of scenes. Or sketches, or games, or whatever you want to call them.
The list of scenes is stuck to the wall in a prominent position, so we can broadly follow where we are in the running order. They take a number of forms; “impossible circuit training”, “Fear”, excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, Q&As and dance routines. The protagonist (everyone keeps their actual names) moves through and allows the show to happen to them rather than vice versa.
[A quick note about how the show was made, which I learnt from chatting to a couple of company members. After having this mad idea on a long group walk, the ensemble set about coming up with a long, long list of playlets, games, exercises, scenes, questions, songs and routines. Then, led by dramaturg Joel Horwood, they slowly began to hone and shape a show which might follow some kind of journey and – for want of a better word – ‘mean’ something. If nothing else, this is a fascinating method of creating theatre, and demonstrates how far Secret Theatre has come in the past twelve months or so.]
The audience, sat on three sides of the rehearsal room at the Lyric, are involved in various ways, not least by feeling a part of this mad gang. This early version involved a bit about maths and a collective rendition of ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’, which have both now disappeared, but the structure of the show was pretty much the same as it is now.
More than anything, I remember this particular performance being funny and joyful. With Billy Seymour as the protagonist, listing his fears as “Secret Theatre, acting, and sharks”, it was funny from start to finish.
There’s a scene in the show when the protagonist and a member of the opposite sex swap clothes and proceed to fuck to the soundtrack of Foals’ ‘Big Big Love’. Except they don’t actually fuck, obviously. The man (in a woman’s clothes) lies on the floor in various positions, while the woman (in a man’s clothes) dances and jumps around as colourful lights flash around them. When Billy played the protagonist, his opposite was played by Cara Horgan, who danced and boogied with so much energy and verve that it felt like a beautiful moment of shared passion. The mix of dance, music and light filled me up like a big balloon of joy.
I had just fallen in love. So A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts was a show about falling in love.
This was a piece of theatre about that little wriggle you constantly feel at the bottom of your stomach when you’re with someone you care deeply about. It’s about sweating a little bit whenever you’re about to see them again. Or the tiny sparks of electricity which seem to fly out whenever you accidentally touch. It was about the awkwardness you feel when it’s first starting, about how your head can’t work out what’s going on and how it makes you want to do nothing else but dance. It was about how scary love is.
I genuinely thought I’d join in with the ‘Proud Mary’ dance routine.
The next time I saw the show, Ellie and I went together. This time, Leo was chosen as protagonist.
And here’s the weird thing about Show 5 – though it follows the same journey every night (actor goes through a series of tasks, a number of which are semi-improvised but still have the same outcome), you interpret it in entirely different ways based on your current situation and emotion.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that, a couple of times throughout the show, the protagonist is asked “What’s the show about tonight?” and every time they say the first thing that comes to their head. From this moment on, then, we as an audience can’t help but read the show in relation to that statement, whether we agree with it or not. The show might have been nothing to do with that thing whatsoever but now it is. Each time, then, the ensemble draws attention to the way in which theatre is wholly subjective and subject to any number of possible interpretations. Which is obvious of course, but it’s rarely acknowledged within a piece of theatre itself.
This time round, Leo’s protagonist went from someone who treated people like dicks and didn’t listen to someone with warmth and heart and respect. It was about growing into a particular persona and finding your feet.
Again, the Foals scene in particular stuck with me this time round. This time, it was Nadia who swapped clothes with the protagonist, so that Leo ended up in a striped leotard far too small for him. Funny, right? As soon as the dancing started, though, it became far darker; rather than dancing with passion and joy, Nadia’s movement was aggressive and forceful, so the moment pretty much looked like rape. Leo looked at us with tears in his eyes.
Then, slowly, he built up the trust of the group around him as they offered him helping hands during the circuit training and played out a comfortable life during the love story Q&A scene. Imperceptibly, this started to become a show about how we need friends and lovers around us to make life better, about how things improve when there’s someone there holding your hand.
The next morning, Ellie and I did the ‘Proud Mary’ dance routine as we were getting ready for work.
On my third visit, Stevie was the protagonist.
As soon as he was chosen, you could tell it was going to be one of those shows that you remember forever. There was a genuine look of surprise as his name was read out, and immediately it seemed like the odds would be stacked against him.
The first twenty minutes or so was just him getting shat on (metaphorically) time and time again. It seemed like the whole of the rest of the cast (minus Leo, as he was filming) was against him. Hammed had no mercy when smashing a football at him; no one wanted to dance with him; even Adele, when she was playing the scene of the two of them falling in love, wasn’t really into it. When first asked what the show was about, Stevie had a defiant reply: “Dickheads”.
His fears that he listed were real and tangible: “Being alone”. “Not having any kids”. “Never working again”.
Then, when Matti danced to Foals after they’d swapped clothes, she did so like she didn’t care. Whereas before I’d seen two people in the throes of passion and – well – a rape, this was entirely devoid of emotion. She was just going through the motions as Stevie lay there; this was sex at a distance. Bodies colliding but not connecting.
After that, when she was asking Stevie questions about relationships and sex, we got the sucker punch.
Matti: “Do you ever pretend?”
Stevie: “It’s my job.”
Matti: “Are you pretending now?”
Stevie: “I don’t know.”
And yeah, well, from that moment on I was pretty much gone.
Now, we weren’t sure how real this all was. When they were wrestling, were they doing so for real? Was that real pain? Was this just an expulsion of hatred? I found myself feeling like I needed to stop it, to help out, but then Stevie would throw a pantomimic aside at the audience and I’d think “Phew, it’s only acting,” only to shift again a second later.
Slowly, though, people started to come to his aid. The gang of people around him started loving each other again and pushing themselves back into the frame of his life. The protagonist had been distant from the people he loved, but now they were there again, and it was beautiful. The show this time was about all the anxieties you have being discarded as soon as your loved ones are holding you again. It was about how you define yourself when you’re alone, only to realise the people you love make you that and (hopefully) make you into a better person. It was, in Stevie’s words, about “Support.”
And I genuinely thought the whole audience would join in with the ‘Proud Mary’ dance routine.
I think it was the closest I’ve ever come to crying in the theatre.
That’s it for now, though, and I think I need to give myself a bit of space from this show so I don’t keep experiencing life as if through its prism. I’ll see it again though, further down the line.
And one day, I’ll join in with the ‘Proud Mary’ dance routine.