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Edinburgh Fringe 2013

The Secret Agent

Theatre O

Genre: Drama

Venue: Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 


Low Down

Secret terror cells, political conspiracy, police bungling, state-sponsored bomb plots… This is London, 1896. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic novel, The Secret Agent, this is theatre O’s heart-breaking and hilarious chronicle of passion, betrayal and terrorism.


This show is an odd mix of macabre comedy, music hall cabaret and period drama, yet somehow it works. The gloomy staging and highly reflective black floor add to the sense of the bizarre, yet serve to firmly place the piece at the turn of the century when both the novel and the play was set.

The story is that of a bumbling secret agent, who may in fact be a double agent. It was not wholly clear in the play who he was working for, or whether he was working for everyone, but suffice to say he was charged with the dastardly task of ‘bombing time’, by blowing up the Greenwich Observatory. Without a doubt my favourite scene was the one where the hopeless Verloc, played by George Potts, goes to visit the utterly mad Vladimir at the Russian Embassy. Played expertly by Leander Deeny, Vladimir (stress on the second syllable please,) is irrational, rude, bonkers and utterly hilarious.

It was this heightened comedy and overblown style that marked Theatre O’s telling of the Secret Agent, with the white-faced, red-cheeked performers using elements of clowning and physical theatre. For the most part I think this worked, they were clearly a skilful cast and committed to their roles. However, at times, the mixture of styles felt a bit arbitrary and thrown together, and I think the piece would have benefited from a bit more consistency. There were a couple of music-hall numbers; low-key songs accompanied by a banjo, which whilst not incredible, contributed a certain mood to the piece. Yet, as these sorts of songs did not feature throughout, they felt a little tacked on, and I think that the use of more songs, to advance plot points or flesh out characters would have enhanced the piece, as the cast clearly had the ability to pull it off.

Theatre O have a lot to give, and I am sure that as they tour the Secret Agent will grow and develop. Their expert performances and well-drawn characters were what made the play, but I think that a little more clarity on the storyline might be necessary. With the cast playing multiple roles, and a mixture of single, double and possibly even triple agents double-crossing each other, I would certainly have appreciated a little more explanation regarding who was working for whom.