Life of Spy


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 9th October, 2013


Based on a story by Joseph Conrad, this adaptation by Matthew Hurt and Theatre O, is a 90-minute melange of theatrical conventions, some of which work better than others.  In a rather gothic, Victorian/Edwardian setting by designer Simon Daw, the story unfolds of Adolf Verloc (George Potts) an agent who has infiltrated an anarchist gang.  He is tasked with the job of bombing the Greenwich Observatory in order to foster a climate of fear within the public – it all sounds starkly relevant to today’s world of terrorist scaremongering and TV’s Homeland!  It all goes horrifically wrong and the fall-out from an accidental explosion leads to mourning and murder.

Potts is rather engaging as Verloc, with a nice line in Music Hall singing.  The show could do with more of this.  Later on we get a snatch of Blue Moon to cover a scene transition – the numbers provide uplifting contrast to the dark subject matter with its rich vein of dark humour.

There are movement sequences of heightened and repeated actions that express what the dialogue does not.  There are animated projections like chalk drawings of doors and windows, reminding us of the story-ness of the, um, story.  These devices add to the mood and feel of the piece.  Other tricks mar the general effect.  There is an ill-advised scene in which half a dozen volunteers are recruited from the audience to sit in at a meeting, eat biscuits, nod their heads and repeat lines, in a Generation Game kind of manner.  It takes us out of the sinister quality of the material – it is already strongly implied that we, the audience, should not be so complacent and sit there accepting everything.  The production is a call to direct action, to get up and do something to stop the rich fatcats from taking everything… but this message peters out.  We get caught up in the beauty of the production and the effectiveness of technique rather than stirred to bring an end to social injustice.

Leander Deeny is larger-than-life as Vladimir, setting Verloc his task in a funny absurdist scene.  Helena Lymbery provides two contrasting characterisations as the Mother and an anarchist Professor, but Carolina Valdes stands out as Winnie.  Her moments of stillness are as expressive as her choreographed movements.

A hodgepodge of conventions, The Secret Agent looks good and is not without its shocks and surprises, but its bag of tricks is inconsistent in its effectiveness.  You leave the theatre, reflecting on moments of theatricality rather than anything the content might have to say.

I would have liked a bit more Music Hall too.


About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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