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Review: The Secret Agent, Young Vic Theatre

09/09/2013 16:26 BST | Updated 08/11/2013 10:12 GMT

The Secret Agent, a book by Joseph Conrad, is not easy source material to work with but from it, theatre O has developed a unique and intriguing interpretation. The result isn't completely fluid but it is highly imaginative and shows great promise for the theatre company.

The secret agent is Adolf Verloc, a low-ranking spy who has infiltrated an anarchist organisation that doesn't seem to be much of a threat to the established order. This suits Verloc perfectly as frankly, he wants nothing more than the quiet life, an easy desk job without much fuss and lovely evenings at home with his family where he is feted as a king.

All of this is thrown into chaos by the intervention of his boss Vladimir who instructs his man to antagonise the anarchist group he has infiltrated, to get them to take action. This scene, where Vladimir runs circles around the simple Verloc, is the highlight of a bright, strong first half. This section is played like a satire, and it's done so well that it leaves you to question who we should be more afraid of - the terrorists, or the state that looks to exploit them for their own ends?

Yet suddenly halfway through, after Verloc has detonated the bomb Vladimir demanded, the tone and approach of the production turns on a dime. We're thrown from a political farce into a personal melodrama, and the effect, rather than being dramatic, is quite jarring.

The lurch into the second half isn't helped by a sudden switch-up in the timeline - jumping forward to after the explosion, and then jumping back to before the explosion, before continuing on as the repercussions of Verloc's decision ripple out, impacting everyone in his life from his family to other members of the anarchist cell.

In fairness that is what happens in the book but some thought could have been given to adapting this as the jumping around does lose those members of the audience unfamiliar with the source material.

The result is that the production as a whole seems to be composed of two incongruent halves - a satirical comedy and an intimate tragedy. Either of those two approaches to The Secret Agent would have been fascinating and intriguing. But glued together, the result does leave the audience a bit muddled.

Leaving the challenges of the writing aside, there is much to admire in this bold production. The small cast of five actors all deliver cracking performances, often as more than one character, giving them great opportunity to showcase their versatility.

Special mention must also go to the director Joseph Alford and choreographer Eva Vilamitjana for their innovative use of a simple set. The Maria at the Young Vic is a small space to work in but instead of shying away from the challenge, theatre O has turned the shifting of furniture between scenes into moments of fascinating physical theatre. It's a wonderful feature of the production.

Young Vic Theatre, London

To September 21, 2013