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★★★☆☆ Review: Gallery of Secrets – The Lost Lily by The Theatre Practice and National Gallery Singapore

Fiendishly convoluted mystery makes this a real treasure for puzzle diehards.

Following their first venture into digital theatre with The Bride Always Knocks TwiceKiller Secrets in 2021, The Theatre Practice (Practice) has furthered their exploration with new hybrid mystery meets treasure hunt Gallery of Secrets: The Lost Lily.

Co-produced with National Gallery Singapore, Gallery of Secrets is helmed by the same creative team that handled The Bride Always Knocks Twice, with direction by Practice Artistic Director Kuo Jian Hong and a script co-written by Jonathan Lim and Liu Xiaoyi. Naturally then, much like how that previous venture wasn’t a cut and dried murder mystery, neither is this project a simple art heist where there is a specific ‘culprit’. Instead, audiences are now tasked to unravel the entire storyline behind a family’s long-held secret, in order to uncover the location of a valuable, historical treasure somewhere in the Gallery.

Gallery of Secrets follows closely in the same style as The Bride Always Knocks Twice, similarly adopting a three ‘chapter’ format that audiences have to attend to fully experience. In Chapter 1: The Painting, the experience’s loose storyline is introduced, where on the night of a seemingly ordinary donation ceremony, Madam Liang Ming Choo (Jalyn Han) is set to donate a rare, valuable painting once owned by her husband Alistair Brown. But when the painting undergoes an X-ray analysis and an unexpected detail is revealed, Madam Liang hastily withdraws the donation and the ceremony comes to a close. Framed as patrons of the Gallery, the audience is then tasked to get to the bottom of the mystery, and find out exactly what is going on.

Immediately after this, we are thrust into a live interview segment with the ceremony’s emcee Janine Choo (Ang Xiao Ting), who also happens to be Madam Liang’s granddaughter, as well as Madam Liang herself, all to see what clues we can glean. The mechanics here improve immensely upon the one introduced previously; during the Madam Liang interview, where she speaks only in Mandarin, a live facilitator helps administer questions from the audience, as well as do limited live translation to aid non-Mandarin speakers.

Compared to Bride, where not every audience member could speak to every character, by limiting this to just two main characters, audiences are also no longer caught in a chokepoint of imperfect information, and are all able to proceed to Chapter 2 on equal ground with the same information. Both Ang Xiao Ting and Jalyn Han are competent and well-rehearsed enough to respond in character to just about any question thrust to them on the spot, showcasing how both actresses have evidently thought through and know their character’s backstories inside out.

Chapter 2: The Hunt, however, is where things get divisive. I’ll admit this – I’m the kind of person who hates getting stuck, and will often refer to online walkthroughs and guides to ensure completion when playing video games. Puzzles are not my forte, and my worst fears were realised when I began to take stabs in the dark at the series of riddles and hunts we were posed with. As this segment of the experience explicitly utilises artworks and information within the Gallery, audience members have the option of either utilising a virtual recreation of the Gallery, or heading down to the physical building to do their hunt.

I personally chose to stick with the online version of it, but the moment I reached a problem, I was unable to proceed until I had resolved it. That was the point I realised who Gallery of Secrets’ actual audience was – hardcore puzzle solvers. Gallery of Secrets focuses its efforts primarily on the core puzzle itself, and for anyone who gets stuck at Chapter 2, it’s essentially a dead end, with no alternative paths, side quests, or Easter eggs one can attempt to explore or discover, and no choice but to wait for the final chapter.

Of course, it is also entirely possible to skip Chapter 2 altogether, and simply sit back and enjoy the puzzle’s solution come Chapter 3: The Treasure. This is where Gallery of Secrets is at its most impressive – not only is the solution deviously complex and requires lateral thinking and extensive research into the artworks and their titles in the Gallery to draw the connections, but the cinematography itself is of high quality, and the way the (very long) explanation has been done is incredibly smooth and stylish (thanks to Director of Photography Rachel Liew and production designer Daniel Lim).

As a work intended to get audience members to visit the Gallery, Gallery of Secrets manages to avoid crafting too easy a puzzle such that the solution can be solved without much effort, but instead, leans a bit too far into the other direction that seems to take the fun out of it, where audience members may simply give up when faced with too difficult a solution. Such a difficulty ensures that only for the most enthusiastic of audience members will enjoy the process, and likely make a trip down to the actual Gallery to embark on their investigation – and even then, hope that they would not get stumped by even more wrenches thrown their way (such as knowledge of Chinese and Japanese written characters).

More importantly however, having placed so much emphasis on the puzzle, as clever as it is, the actual drama and story then takes a backseat, and there is little attachment to any of the figures we encounter in the story, making the solution intellectually rewarding, but emotionally lacking, where the amount of effort and commitment one puts into it may not equate the eventual payoff, especially in Singapore, where time is a luxury. The concept behind Gallery of Secrets is an admittedly novel one, no doubt with plenty of research that went into it that allowed all the artworks and puzzle pieces to fit so precisely to form a single solution. But this is also a work that is effectively reserved only for the most dedicated of audience members willing to set aside time over two weeks to expend their energy on, ‘true’ treasure hunters who would find the thrill of the chase the real treasure all along.

Gallery of Secrets: The Lost Lily ran from 4th to 18th April 2022. More information available here

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