Secret Studio Lab has returned to London with a new, immersive theatre show: the subversive Secret Theatre Project Mayhem. Spoilers ahead, if you’re planning to see the see the show within the next couple days. The premise, while derivative, might have been fertile ground for the enthusiastic cast. In the end, it doesn’t matter when the production is so poorly thought out.
In a strangely quiet alley off Kingsland Road, men in black uniforms guard the entrance to a gravel path. At its end, a bouncer gruffly demands the password and your ticket. Down a flight of steps lies the subterranean, industrial space that is the headquarters of Project Mayhem. Above the meet and greet area hangs a poster with the rules: don’t talk about Project Mayhem, and only trust Tyler.
Here the audience is inducted into an anarchist cell, with four distinct sections to explore. The set is atmospheric, thanks to some meticulous props and the decaying location itself. Combat Training is sparse, with punching bags and climbing ropes. Explosives is well stocked with chemical supplies, and crates of homemade incendiary bombs. The walls of the Planning room is papered with maps, building schematics and coded messages.
It’s all brought to a sinister half-life by the crew. Across three activities, the audience received instruction in the art of domestic terrorism. Some of them were no-nonsense martinets; others were patient guides; sometimes they were comradely and regaled us with war stories. Masked guards prowl in and around the complex – were they our protectors or our gaolers?
“We’re going to burn this city to the ground” is the group’s common refrain, and I almost believe in their fervor.
Exploring Project Mayhem is an intriguing proposition – at first. As more people stream in, they require more time to process through each activity. The result is that, even if you participate in each one, too much time is spent dawdling around. The dark glamour slips away, giving the impression of a fairground. In the end, it’s less an underground revolution and more a bubbly social gathering.
After what feels like an age, we gathered around the large central space to witness several bouts of sparring. The choreography and the practical effects are done well, although I feel that there is something lost in live staging. Standing so close to the action, some of the punches can seem light and unreal. Even so, the cast convey the intoxicating effect of such primal, unchecked physicality.
It’s soon confirmed that this is a truncated, live-action version of the Fight Club movie. There’s little sense of plot or suspenseful buildup, just a series of loosely connected speeches and scenes. Character exposition and interaction is entertaining, if a little rushed, but they never lead to anything substantial. The Narrator/Tyler Durden actor gives a strong performance, shifting between charismatic revolutionary and timid victim. Yet these transformations, and his interactions with Marla, feel disjointed. To someone with no knowledge of Fight Club – a distinct possibility at a secret show – it must be utterly incomprehensible.
The star attraction is seems to be the audience interactive elements – which also happen to be the weakest of all. The second set of activities follow the conceit that we are planning the next stage of the big Operation. Even with a question and answer format, most are as cagey as they are around the tutorial table. These instances demonstrate why audience participation is a tricky thing. In at least two of the rooms, the audience is gently lead to the same plan. It must be the same, of course, in order to facilitate the next scene (also lifted directly from Fight Club).
Personally, I felt that there was no pace, no agency – and little sense of immersion. When the office towers explode (via projector and a smoke machine) and riot police sweep us out into the evening air, I was largely unsatisfied. I had spent two hours here, but it somehow felt like a whole lot less.
At its best, Secret Theatre Project Mayhem is a promising idea with some raw, thrilling stagecraft. Yet too much time is wasted, and the activities are unnecessarily involved. With pared down interactive elements and limited audience members, a taut, promenade staging could be far more immersive. As it is, this felt like a whole lot of awkward standing around, waiting for something to happen.
Thank you to Secret Studio Lab for inviting us to the performance.
Photography: Secret Studio Lab.