"Honesty is the best policy"
by Chris Bearne for remotegoat on 05/12/09

Here is another venue to add to your fringe hit list, and another company. The Cock Tavern has been going barely a year, has already popped a Peter Brook pub theatre award on its bar and is in clear pursuit of excellence. The new company, Flexible Productions, seems too to be aiming high, if its maiden offering Secrets, is anything to go by.

Secrets is new, devised work ; for a snapshot, a few quotes from the blurb will help : "(an) intimate play exploring real-life revelations (the actors' own) - muddies the line between documentary, confession and fictional narrative - avoids the plot-driven approach - collage of relationships - a psychologist makes connections - what it is to keep something secret in front of an audience that wants to know". The result is a surprisingly (for the most part) coherent play, amusing and involving and at times very moving. Its hallmark is some honest and accomplished acting from a well-qualified and experienced cast. Most of the dialogues and vignettes - the fruits of workshopping -were more than worth the trip : plaudits here especially to Shireen Walton, Sarah Baxendale and James Dutton.

The positive side of devised theatre, in capable hands like those of Director Danielle Coleman, is the freshness and intimacy that comes out of the work, from experiences (and secrets?) shared in the rehearsal room. The negative side emerges from the process that takes that shared experience before an audience, where devising is at risk of becoming contrivance. I have to say that I found this with the role of the psychologist in the play. A watchable actor, as brother and friend, Andrew Cleaver was nevertheless not always believable as a consultant. Perhaps this reflected his function as a device, to enable more secrets to emerge, and some delicious play in a pair of regression-therapy scenes (beautiful, Helen Briscoe) but at the cost of credibility. This would not have been apparent, had not the acting of other scenes been so lucid and so real.

My only other specific quibble is with the machinery of the play. A cast in waiting on stage before curtain up promises complicity, and in this case clearly harboured secrets with which to tease us. This was borne out in scene changes, with a sort of baton-handover moment happening between the actors, but it was unclear whether the collusion - sometimes irritation - between them was for us to share. When they uttered their quick-fire denouements at the end, our role as audience was acknowledged; maybe it would have helped to have this sooner.

I hope this is taken as constructive criticism, because this company's work is worth watching: the piece evolved with satisfying fluidity, segues imaginatively accomplished, characters sharply distinguished, production values (staging, lighting, sound, props) well above the norm for a minimally-resourced presentation. This was a short run, but watch out for another chance to see Secrets.

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