The Secret Keeper (Ovalhouse, Kennington)

The Secret Keeper (Ovalhouse, Kennington, until October 21st then touring)


In the week that the news media is filled with celebrities claiming everyone knew about film producer Harvey Weinstein’s secrets but was afraid to say anything, the new play by Angela Clerkin couldn’t be timelier.

The Secret Keeper is a grim fairy tale for modern times with as many possible interpretations as there are members of the audience.

Given its dark nature and content the play is a story for adults, yet in the creative process – the idea was developed at the National Theatre Studio – it could so easily have become a morality tale for children, which may have been a more interesting direction. Early publicity suggested puppetry would be heavily featured but there are no strings here: instead (and rather disappointingly) we are left with four actors and some distinctly malevolent magpies.

Clerkin, who wrote and co-directed, is the daughter of a dollmaker – a “good daughter” as we are frequently reminded – and one day her father whispers a secret in her ear with the promise that she must never reveal what she has been told, only to find an enormous weight lifted from him.

Realising the commercial potential her parents invite all the townsfolk to share their secrets (represented by magpies, more of a mob than a parliament) to make their lives easier – but ignoring the stress placed on their daughter who cannot repeat what she hears in what fast becomes a pseudo-confessional.

At its simplest level the play is about keeping secrets, and the far-reaching consequences of what people say and do. It is not hard, though, to unpick references to the dangers of social media, the alarming possibilities of privacy invasion, pushy parents who bask in the reflected glow of an offspring’s success, the hazards of celebrity, corruption in political life and the repercussions of forgetting what it means to love.

Between them, the other three actors in the piece play a range of characters: Niall Ashdown and Anne Odeke are especially strong as the parents whose ambitions and desire build a tottering house on the sand, while Hazel Maycock has a sombre innocence as the chemist, a family friend with an ultimate secret never to be told.

Nick Powell’s songs have a quirky quality, though most are repetitive within themselves – one wishes for numbers that are slightly more revealing about those who sing them rather than merely underlining what has already been said.

This is a play that must have been tremendous fun in its evolution and maybe too many ideas made it through the filter. It is also relentlessly negative, suggesting there is never going to be any escape from a world of injustice: not all secrets have to be shadowy and there might have been salvation for those characters involved had some of the whispers stemmed from childish excitement and innocent pleasures.

While it doesn’t deliver at every level, The Secret Keeper is intelligent, thoughtful and provocative and is bound to leave audiences wondering about how to escape all manner of moral mazes – with or without cheeky magpies.

David Guest

Photo, Sheila Burnett

(A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub