Secret Theatre: Show 3
The Lyric Hammersmith presents the latest production in its experimental season
After two "secret" versions of well-worn classics, placing them in a sort of shaky relief by certain interpretative shock tactics, Sean Holmes' season gets down to business with a new play about death, justice and execution in a violent re-occupation of the Lyric.
While the exterior of the theatre remains a building site and a no-go area, there's something spooky about both physical presentation and subject matter as the audience trudges round the perimeter to the stage door, climbs into the roof – we know not where, really – and actors assemble in an echoing death chamber.
In one illuminated square, the administrators of capital punishment and the bed-bound future corpse; in another, the witnesses of barbarism including a relative of the victim, a relative of the criminal, a journalist, a physician and a jumpy man with a silly throat-clearing habit who calls himself a spiritual adviser.
Playwright Caroline Bird calls her piece a pitch-black comedy, and that's putting it mildly. It's dark and outspoken to the point of bizarre, unsettling hilarity, embracing both the unsayable and the undo-able with a genuinely shocking fervour: there are moments of unexpected candour and reprieve, of lurid re-enactment and, in the latter stages, a sudden lurch into moral and ethical debate of an unusual intensity. It's as though Joe Orton and Edward Bond have been put through a blender and served in a dirty tooth mug with iron filings. Cheers.
There's no doubt that the subterfuge, defiant nature of the whole "Secret Theatre" season has informed the kind of event we now experience, and the ten actors – including Leo Bill, Steven Webb, Nadia Albina (the season's Blanche DuBois), Adelle Leonce and Billy Seymour (the season's Woyzeck now doing an over-the-top afflicted version of Lee Evans) and Hammed Animashaun – are all right "on" it.
The design, lighting and sound of Paul Wills, Lizzie Powell and Nick Manning are particularly effective, combining to produce an environment that is both curiously chilling and dangerously over-heated. The later scenes are dominated by the callous and intellectually revolting figure of a prison governor played by Cara Horgan, and there's a magnificent architectural coup de théâtre at the end of a riveting 95 minutes.