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The Secret Agent review

Traverse Theatre

© Stephen Cummiskey
This overegged vaudeville-style adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s great 1907 novel takes the source text’s concern with anarchy as a starting point and then takes a flying leap into the waters of borderline incoherence.

Theatre O’s devised production seems blithely unconcerned over whether it’s a very loose riff on ‘The Secret Agent’, a comedy reinterpretation of ‘The Secret Agent’, or very occasionally, a serious attempt to bring Conrad’s darkly comic, shockingly prescient masterpiece about the rise of terrorism to the stage.

We’re chucked headlong into a world of mad Victoriana, as a white-faced quintet of actors introduce themselves via some ribald, music hall-style audience interaction, which eventually gives way to a loose interpretation of the events of the book.

In the first half, at least, things are silly to the point of parody. Verloc, the titular double agent, is tasked with planting a bomb at a sweary, teddy bear’s picnic-style mission briefing from foreign diplomat Mr Vladimir. Said briefing involves six audience members, two dolls, and a much dafter reason for the decision to choose Greenwich Observatory as the target than the one provided by Conrad.

This level of overt anarchy, sustained over a shorter play, might have been quite the laugh, but not only does Joseph Alford’s production drag on, it insists on getting serious in the second half – a problem, because it’s hard to feel invested in characters who were introduced as two-dimensional jokes.

It’s a shame, because there are constant hints of a good play – possibly several good plays – here, and in Helena Lymbery’s impassive bomb-maker The Professor it does at last present a genuinely troubling terrorist figure, a hint that there may be some link between this world and our own post-9/11 one.

Really though, Theatre O have ducked the weight of the book and instead opted to amuse themselves. Like Conrad’s anarchists, they have plenty of interesting goals but don’t really achieve any of them.

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