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Launched last year with a rousing dig at the conservatism of British theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre company has since flirted with derivation too often. However, with these idiosyncratic Fringe offerings, it has found a voice of its own.
A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts feels completely fresh: a theatrical assault course. It’s a circuit of tasks to be completed (or rather, attempted) anew each night. Ten actors, all in bright sportswear, put their names in a hat and pick out a protagonist at random. That poor soul – Cara Horgan on the night I caught it – introduces themselves, then gets stuck in: dancing, wrestling, downing beers, bending metal, squeezing into suitcases and chomping through lemons. Before too long, they’re panting, tearful and trying not to be sick. It’s an electrifying thing to watch.
This is a proper workout, both physically and emotionally, and we can’t help but live it vicariously, wincing in sympathy and beaming along. Between challenges come quick-fire interrogations and anecdotes, about fears and first kisses, true loves and big regrets. They lay out their entire love lives and you really get to know the person onstage. You watch them trying and trying and trying.
That’s where it catches the temperature of the times – the difficulty of austerity living, of individualism in an uninterested world. But it also says a lot about love. The show takes you from gawky school dances to full-blown heartbreak and, above all else, it says: “Keep going.” That it does so with such heart, humour and humility is a rare treat. Consider this a cult hit.
Mark Ravenhill became a Secret Theatre devotee early on. So much so that he wrote a play for it, Show 6. Its thrust comes from the clash of two words: a young man has run over a “chav” in the “favela”. In one sentence, Ravenhill places us in a hybrid of Britain and Brazil. He aims to twist together the two nations’ political histories: Thatcherism and a military dictatorship.
The young man (Steven Webb), a consumerist fashionista, discovers his real parents were disappeared by the junta. It seems that the past has been erased and the present is content and undissenting. Alternative viewpoints have been wiped out. As David Cameron might put it, “We are all Thatcherites now.”
Caroline Steinbeis directs a nimble, if sometimes effortful, production in the round. Her cast wear swimwear, as if their lives were one long holiday. They insist on their inalienable right to happiness. If Ravenhill is partisan, pushing for consumerism’s overhaul, he’s also critical of the infantile generation wielding the sword. The second half spins out of control, but the ideas are chewy enough to satisfy.
A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, Northern Stage at King’s Hall
Show 6, Roundabout at Summerhall