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Review of Angela Clerkin’s The Secret Keeper at Ovalhouse

The Secret Keeper - Angela Clerkin (photo by Sheila Burnett)
The Secret Keeper – Angela Clerkin (photo by Sheila Burnett)

As someone who doesn’t like ambiguity, it would be grossly unfair to tear into The Secret Keeper for being crystal clear in its narrative and tone. That said, some of the characters’ voices are reminiscent of the BBC radio show Listen With Mother, soothing and inviting for some, irritating and patronising for others. But that manner of speaking was used between characters, with direct addresses to the audience more naturalistic. The programme does not name any of the characters, so I shall keep the secret, so to speak – though that is easy, because most of the characters are known only by what they are rather than having any ‘real’ names.

The good daughter (Angela Clerkin) serves as narrator, though other characters have their own occasional asides to the audience as well. That she is labelled ‘good’ daughter implies, of course, there are other sorts of daughter that she could be, or otherwise that the father (Niall Ashdown) and mother (Anne Odeke) have more than one daughter. There’s also the chemist (a convincing Hazel Maycock), best friend to the family. The distancing effect created by creating a fantasy fairy-tale world allows for different interpretations of the evening’s proceedings. Stripped of real-world social, political and historical context, the focus is almost solely on the plot itself, and the consequences of people’s words and actions.

With most of the action confined to the daughter’s bedroom (no, not that sort of bedroom activity – the daughter is prepubescent, though played by an adult), the play is heavy on description. Some of what is said is somewhat exaggerated, insofar as there is some incongruence between what the audience is told about certain characters’ behaviour and how they actually behave from what can be seen on stage. But the plot is not so complicated as to make the audience question whether what people divulge as their ‘secret’ really happened or not.

There are musical numbers in the play, sufficiently entertaining in their own way, and well-performed, but not adding anything to the story beyond what has already been said. They are also mind-numbingly repetitive. While the daughter’s lyric “it’s all about me” was repeated too often, later, the father’s dismissive and increasingly angry “I’m disappointed in you” made me disappointed in myself that I didn’t keep a tally of how many times it was sung. Okay, so nobody is left wondering what is going on at any given moment, but these songs and melodies are hardly the stuff of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, set in a world of nursery rhymes.

There’s a moral dilemma posed, one that doesn’t technically exist in the Roman Catholic Church, where priests are not to reveal what has been disclosed during confession to anybody, under any circumstances. What if someone tells a ‘secret’, but the secret in question involves a criminal offence being committed (irrespective of whether the offence was caused or merely witnessed by the secret teller)? Should that sort of secret remain ‘safe’ with a so-called secret keeper? For me, the answer is no, and I would report it. But is it so easy for a young child to do so, given her commitment to absolute discretion?

The play has much to say, for instance, about the pressures certain parents place on their offspring, particularly when it is expressed in the form of conditional love. There are no easy answers to the themes raised in the show, and the possible real-world implications to this fairy-tale narrative are vast. It has its imperfections but, all things considered, this is an intelligent and perceptive production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The Good Daughter wants to make her father happy. ‘Tell me what makes you so sad. Tell me your dark secret and I promise to keep it safe.’ He whispers in her ear and a great weight lifts. Delighted, he invites the whole town to confide in his miraculous daughter. But what happens when a murderer confesses – and who’s to blame for the consequences?

From Illicit affairs to theft, murder, government cover-ups and whistle-blowers, THE SECRET KEEPER is a personal story with global implications. Featuring an award-winning creative team, original music and an ensemble cast of four playing over 40 characters, the show promises visual invention, fiendish storytelling and startling contemporary resonance.

Commissioned by Ovalhouse and developed at the NT Studio with support from Arts Council England, The Secret Keeper is the follow-up to Clerkin’s acclaimed 2013 sell-out The Bear (Improbable/UK Tour). The show premieres in London at Ovalhouse from 11-21 October before embarking on UK tour.

THE SECRET KEEPER is co-directed by Clerkin & Bush Theatre Associate Artist Lucy J Skilbeck (Fringe First winner – Joan, Underbelly; The Bear/The Proposal, Young Vic). Design is by Simon Vincenzi (Camera Lucida, Barbican; The Invisible Dances, ROH), music by Nick Powell (The Ferryman, Royal Court; Othello, NT) and lighting by Colin Grenfell (Lost Without Words, Improbable/NT; Black Watch, NTS). Cast includes Clerkin alongside Niall Ashdown (Kneehigh; Told By An Idiot) and Hazel Maycock (Frozen, Fingersmiths/Tour).

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