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TBC Theatre's MR NAISMITH'S SECRET by H. Clare Callow

Edward Naismith (Stuart Jeanfield) & Jane Adair (Kathryn Tohill) and two "guests"

The Gate Lodge, at the entrance to Melbourne General Cemetery, is host to Mr Naismith’s Secret, a new immersive work from TBC Theatre. This historic home is the perfect space for a play set in the 1800s; a mystery performance about the owner of the house, his guests and his servants.

The audience is free to roam the house; getting up-close-and-personal with the actors in one-on-one moments or joining a crowd to surround a couple as they argue.

Immersive theatre for me is possibly more about the experience than the narrative, where you have one eye on the actors in front of you and one ear on what is happening upstairs. This is as much about what it feels like to be in a time and place as it is about character motivations. You may be able to piece together the puzzle, or you may be completely lost.

As the play ended, one audience member exclaimed, “Can someone explain what just happened?” And I wonder what she would have made of some of the immersive theatre I’ve seen that has little regard for narrative at all. Mr Naismith’s Secret lays bare all his secrets; you just won’t always be in the right place at the right time to discover them.

Working with the TBC ensemble, of which she is a member, writer H. Clare Callow used the actors’ improvisations to inform and shape the story she wanted to tell. But it all started with the space; Clare wanted to set something in the Gate Lodge and it quickly evokes the era she needs for this kind of Downton Abbey melodrama meets Agatha Christie intrigue.

We begin outside the house and as actors appear in the courtyard and the driveway, it’s up to us to decide who to follow first or whether to stick with one character the whole time. While I wanted to explore the house, I was keeping my eye on Mary, played by Libby Brockman (who I recently followed in The Maze).

Mary is the young servant girl of the house and she is good at her job; Libby imbued the character with a streak of fun early on in the kitchen, but later the character must deal with much more dramatic developments. At one time, I watched Mary alone with Naismith and then for several minutes, watched her set the dinner table before Hugh arrived.

Late in the show, the reading of a poem resonated with me much more than with those who had missed earlier interactions; but while I saw some early chemistry-related jokes, I missed the later reveal about concoctions upstairs. You win some, you lose some others.

Vaughan Rae’s Abercrombie was dangerous and compelling throughout; I followed him onto the front lawn at one stage and then later watched a quiet moment as he pulled himself together after tangling with Trudi Boatwright’s Agnes. Stuart Jenfield as Naismith grounds the show early on before later twists and turns up the melodrama.

The audience and this production’s use of them was at times compelling and other time’s frustrating. Sometimes the actors performed to us (and with us) as guests to the house; at other times, they had to ignore our presence and sometimes inappropriate laughter. That, in some ways, is the nature of theatre, but a bit more rigour in how and why the audience is considered might bring better focus to the show as a whole. It’s one of those unique considerations of immersive theatre; are we there or are we not there?

In all, though, while the script and the character motivations feel so much like tropes of the genre, the performances I witnessed lifted some of those stock scenes to become moments of thrilling theatre. And where in traditional theatre an actor may regularly escape the stage, here actors must continue in character, even performing to a room of one or, presumably, none, just in case they are later discovered.

Designer Daniel Moulds’ use of lighting, especially the contrast between the coolly lit rooms downstairs and the moody lighting on the second level, made each excursion to a bedroom or a study feel both like a new world and part of the same story. The sparse use of furniture and props is to be commended, as well. There are things to read and to see, if you look; but there are times when you don’t want to be distracted from the performers.

The TBC stable of actors and guest cast are all excellent; you won’t be disappointed by whoever you choose to follow during this experience – though the fear of missing out is truly sharp within the Naismith residence.

If you’ve never experienced immersive theatre before, you should check out Mr Naismith’s Secret. You may not see everything, but you will see things that no one else sees; secrets you can keep to yourself.

Mr Naismith's Secret is on until November 13. Tickets on sale here.

Mary (Libby Brockman) & Jonathan (Myles Tankle)

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