Fresh from a run at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Theatre O has arrived at the Young Vic offering an eccentric take on Joseph Conrad’s political novel The Secret Agent.
It is, in fact, vital that from the very opening scenes, when the company of five perform a clockwork dance with pale-faced, robotic stares setting the evening’s Victoria Vaudevillian vibe, that you give into Theatre O’s surrealism and let the loosely told story wash over you as if spiked by a theatrical hallucinogenic.
As a result of this madness-tinged edge to proceedings, Conrad’s tale of anarchy, terrorism and unforeseen consequences is somewhat overshadowed by how the company have chosen to tell it. With a spirit of insanity and the absurd running throughout, Theatre O’s occasionally stunning theatricality relies on a unique blend of tightly choreographed movement, eccentric comedy, music hall interludes and – the ultimate opinion divider – audience participation.
Whether you would likely be one of the brave souls who readily stick your hand up for audience participation or, more like me, you find yourself taking great interest in the ceiling to avoid any potential eye contact, the addition of some onstage adventure for wanting subjects undeniably adds a frisson of excitement to the evening’s proceedings.
With many of the characters taking on dual roles for the evening, the company tackle an extreme range of personalities as the story progresses. Leander Deeny impresses equally as both the stuttering, vulnerable Stevie and the flamboyantly insane diplomat Vladimir, whose madcap speeches and schizophrenic rants successfully put both George Potts’ baffled, clueless spy Adolf Verloc and the audience members alike on edge, while Helena Lymbery is unrecognisable as the sinister Professor after having irritated all as Adolf’s well-meaning but mouthy Mother-in-Law.
Theatre O’s true moments of clarity and beauty come, however, not with these madcap scenes that tightrope the thin line between comedy and tragedy, but in the scenes where the production successfully harnesses the company’s full imaginative vision with near wordless expression and Simon Daw’s creative design.
Carolina Valdés as Adolf’s wife Winnie Verloc may speak the least in the production, but her always mindful movements and tightly choreographed routines speak volumes as to her inner turmoil and a climactic scene with her husband is by far the most affecting moment in the energetic 90 minute trip.