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Secret Thoughts review, Bolton Octagon

Joan Davies loves the verbal dexterity in a witty premiere

Written by . Published on May 22nd 2011.

Secret Thoughts review, Bolton Octagon

A new production’s Press Night at Bolton Octagon is a great start to the weekend, even more so if it propels you into Waterstones the next morning to read the first few chapters of the original novel over coffee and scrambled eggs.

David Lodge has been a Booker Prize nominee and a Booker Prize judge.  He has great story-telling techniques and a strong ability to reflect modern frictions.

Secret Thoughts, a premiere adaptation of David Lodge’s comic 2001 novel ‘Thinks’, did just that.  Set in a fictional university, ‘new’ in the 60s, it tells of the relationship between Ralph Messenger, Professor of Cognitive Science and Helen Reed, Visiting Tutor in Creative Writing.  

Messenger is a notorious and successful philanderer; Helen Reed has fled from Manchester to set herself new challenges while she overcomes a recent bereavement. 

The stage adaptation has been written by the novelist David Lodge himself, working closely with Bolton Octagon’s director David Thacker.  The novel’s title, ‘Thinks’, refers to cartoon thought bubbles and a theme of the novel is the difference between what we say and our ‘secret thoughts’, hence the title of the play.  This allows a well-populated novel to be brought to stage with just two characters. 

Lodge cleverly weaves a story which looks at the difference between our private thoughts and our public persona, how we present a different view of ourselves to the outside world, and even at times to ourselves. 

In doing so he takes in themes of art versus science, men versus women, traditional versus new university subjects, and academic enquiry set in the modern world of media and sponsorship. 

The play presents three views of events: as well as their meetings enacted on stage we get Messenger’s experimental dictation of his random thoughts and Helen’s written journal.  

A play of over two hours with just two on-stage characters is demanding for actors.  Both Kate Coogan as Helen Reed and Rob Edwards as Ralph Messenger meet this challenge with apparent ease, delivering believable, sympathetic and entertaining performances.   

At the heart of the play, and the novel, is a look at the issue of how we can understand private thought processes and the relationship between thoughts, emotions and actions.  How far can we rely on the artistic world, novelists, composers, painters and sculptors for major insights?  

Octagon 1.jpgCan human emotion ever be replicated within artificial intelligence, and would we want it to be? Lodge doesn’t provide answers, but he does use the debate as a satisfying intellectual context to place a story about truth and lies, both public and private. 

David Lodge has adapted before, successfully reworking his Thatcher era academia versus commerce novel ‘Nice Work’ into a prize-winning television drama.  This adaptation is clever, but a little too long. At one point in the first act it threatens to overplay the academic debate.  That’s soon left behind and the later stages held the audience with wit, pace and some unexpected plot developments.  

Ciaran Bagnall’s design works replicates the circular modernity of the Colt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science, the campus’s star building and uses projection to enhance the story as it develops, one point effectively displaying an email exchange for the audience to read.  

Sounds rather dull, but it isn’t, because it builds through working with audience experience of our private body language responses to interesting emails. 

David Lodge has been a Booker Prize nominee and a Booker Prize judge.  He has great story-telling techniques and a strong ability to reflect modern frictions. The ending lacks the implied intellectual weight of the opening, but by this time the characters have moved beyond the slight stereotypes we initially perceived.   

Bolton Octagon’s recent seasons have given it a strong reputation for working to develop premieres. This is no exception.

Thursday 12 May – Saturday 4 June 2011. The Octagon Theatre is at Howell Croft North, Bolton, Greater Manchester, BL1 1SB, 01204 520 661


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