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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Secret Agent

"The whole of this septic world." — Vladimir
The Secret Agent
George Potts as Verloc and Leander Deeny as Vladimir (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
Based on a real life incident in Greenwich Park in 1894 when Martial Bourdin was blown up near the Observatory and it was assumed that the bomb he was carrying had exploded prematurely, Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent follows what might have been Boudin's backstory. Theatre O have devised a performance around the novel taking Conrad's theme of spies, anarchists and agent provocateurs and giving it an anarchic production with flashes of brilliance.

The novel dips in and out of chronological sequence and the production fulfils Theatre O's ambition to challenge both audience (and cast). We first meet Adolf Verloc (George Potts) in a home setting where he is treated like an honoured guest or at least an esteemed lodger. As we gradually realise that this is his family, at first I thought his mother in law, as played by the versatile Helena Lymbery, was his wife, and that his wife and brother in law were his children. By midway through the play I had the family relationships sorted in my head. Carolina Valdes plays Winnie Verloc, his wife and Leander Deeny, her disabled brother Stevie. The gratitude from "Mother" is because Verloc has taken on the support of these three.

The end of the 19th century in England and Europe saw much plotting of anarchist and nationalist groups as people started to question the ruling systems prior to the larger scale revolutions in Eastern Europe. Verloc is a part of an anarchist cell and goes to meet Vladimir (Leander Deeny) at an unnamed London embassy, where he is recruited as an agent provocateur to stage a bombing, so that the authorities will overact with draconian powers of arrest and imprisonment, so that the population will rise up against the oppression. Well, that's the political theory anyway.

The problem for me was with the staging of this scene. It starts well enough with Vladimir spinning a web of anarchic confusion when he questions Verloc's appointment time and pretends to be someone else. But then, meaning to illustrate how the public could be terrified, half a dozen unsuspecting audience members are hauled up onto the stage, seated, fed biscuits and asked to be frightened which they blatantly weren't and took the show into pantomime. Chairs and tables are moved with a nod to the choreographer and much flourishing.

But there are memorable moments which work well. The opening (and closing) tableau is highly effective as the cast assembled together break free in a slow motion ballet. Leander Denny is touching as Stevie, the boy who gets very worked up and distressed. I also liked very much, after the tragic death of Stevie, his sister Winnie putting her hands to her face only for Verloc to pull them away, but for her hands to immediately spring back to her face as if under the pull of a strong magnet. This is an image of inconsolable grief which will stay with me.

The story becomes clearer when Inspector Heat (Dennis Herdman) traces the part of the coat collar found at the scene of the bombing back to the Verloc household. The culmination of Winnie's story when she meets Comrade Ossipon (Also Dennis Herdman) has an interesting ending and the dramatisation of a drowning is memorable.

Although this production is patchy, isolated images have a powerful impact and performances, from Caroline Valdes in particular, are touching and convincing with excellent choreography from Eva Vilamitjana.

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The Secret Agent by Matthew Hurt
Original novel written by Joseph Conrad
Directed by Joseph Alford

Devised and performed by Leander Deeny, Dennis Herdman, Helena Lymbery, George Potts, Caroline Valdes
Designed by Simon Daw
Sound: Gareth Fry
Light: Anna Watson
Video Design: Simon Daw and Paddy Molloy
Illustration: Paddy Molloy
Composition: Marc Teitler
Choreographer: Eva Vilamitjana
The Theatre O /Young Vic production
Running time: One Hours 20 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 21st September 2013 then
West Yorkshire Playhouse 24th to 28th September
Warwick Arts Centre 8th to 12th October
Northern Stage 16th to 19th October
Theatre Royal Plymouth 22nd to 26th October
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th September 2013 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8LZ(Rail/Tube: Waterloo/Southwark)

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