There's nothing glamorous about the espionage imagined by theatre O in this adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel The Secret Agent. Presented as a show-within-a-show by a music hall troupe calling itself the Cabinet of Desire, the play concerns ineffective spy Adolf Verloc, a man who agrees to turn agent provocateur and blow up the Greenwich Observatory in order to prove his worth professionally.
Matthew Hurt's script, created in collaboration with the company, is hard to fault. Absurdity, humour and pathos are blended in just the right measure. The performances, too, are uniformly good, with Leander Deeny deserving special mention for his achingly sad portrayal of Stevie, Verloc's autistic brother-in-law. The show contains several beautiful images—Verloc's wife's response to the bungled bomb plot is particularly striking—but there's not enough connecting these moments to sustain nearly two hours of ponderous storytelling.
Director Joseph Alford's staging values theatrical trickery over proper pacing and all too often the show feels like an excuse to play with a particular device or technique. The audience interaction is nicely handled, as are the moments of song and dance, but these elements rarely serve the narrative and it's not always clear why they've been included.
Visually and technically, The Secret Agent is a thing of beauty. Simon Daw's intricate set design, plus lighting by Anna Watson and sound by Gareth Fry combine to create a show with almost enough atmosphere and polish to make up for its narrative shortcomings.