Review: Secret Thoughts – Octagon Theatre, Bolton, 13/05/2011


When? Friday 13th May 2011
Where? Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Who? Kate Coogan and Rob Edwards
Why?: A long overdue return to David Thacker’s fabulous Octagon Theatre was in order, this time for the world première of Secret Thoughts, acclaimed author/playwright David Lodge’s adaption of his 2001 novel Thinks…

The play centres around married Ralph Messenger (Rob Edwards), a womanizing and vain scientist don and his fledgling romance with new colleague Helen Reed (Kate Coogan), an attractive and intelligent novelist struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband.

The first half meanders along amiably, the two intellectuals flirting and bantering with the requisite faux-intellectualist discussion that all fictional scientists/professors/visionaries are contractually obliged to have in plays such as this. Very little happens of narrative note; as the two embark on the inevitable affair, more and more ‘interesting’ philosophical arguments are put to us about religion, the definition of ‘self’ and other armchair intellectualism that the average theatregoer simply won’t be interested in. There are some amusing moments, such as the endearingly clumsy attempt to show Messenger’s genius in the field of artificial intelligence by having a Roomba with an LED stuck on the front scurry across the stage; a rare moment of (albeit unintentionally funny) soul in the languid first act.

The second act does at least have more dramatic impetus; but the same problems remain. The characters are fundamentally hard to like; particularly Messenger who comes across a bit like a letch rather than the suave, charming ‘philanderer’ – his own words – that he is painted as. Reed is fully aware of her actions and of potentially breaking up a family with two children just because of her own loneliness and sexual needs, which makes her seem more than a mite selfish. Selfish is probably the best word to describe both characters. That is not to say the performances are bad; Kate Coogan in particular has some nice moments and Rob Edwards gets his fair share of laughs when they are offered.

Praise must be given for Ciaran Bagnall’s design and lighting; his tall university set is very appropriate and the crisp white theme gives a sterile, sciencey feel with the many working Apple products supplying the modern edge. The use of projections onto the back wall was strange however, as it was nearly impossible to read the writing from my position due to the jagged edges on the set. It was also fun to see a rather effective hot tub on stage, certainly a first!

Secret Thoughts
is one of those love-or-hate ‘author’s vehicle’ plays which so often split opinion; and I am a afraid to say it more than left me cold. I found the play to be a pretentious re-telling of other people’s theories, with a thin and uninteresting narrative as a shaky framing device. Unlike David Mamet’s classic Oleanna, another two-hander set on a university campus about social interaction between a man and woman, Secret Thoughts feels like it doesn’t really have anything original to say. Whilst Oleanna is a deeply emotional and moving story set around Mamet’s own feelings and experiences with the P.C movement, Secret Thoughts could really be about any subject without detriment to the plot. Additionally, the characters are difficult to like – or hate – and their actions questionable. Not even a slightly desperate red herring in the second act could add any oomph to a rather flat evening.

One can’t help but feel perhaps his novel is a more productive experience than this slightly soulless romantic comedy.

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