Writer and composer: Jason Robert Brown. Director: Jonathan O’Boyle

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It isn’t five years since Southwark Playhouse last staged a musical, but it certainly feels like it. The theatre has pulled out all the stops to get this revival of Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite 2001 chamber piece, The Last Five Years, safely in front of an audience in its larger studio space. Perspex screens separate seats, rows of which have been removed to allow for the correct social distancing and drinks from the bar are served by waitresses before the show begins. Some innovations born out of this sad period may not be so bad.

The show could be seen as a song cycle more than a fully formed musical, but director Jonathan O’Boyle strives to defy this description with a lively, inventive production, choreographed by Sam Spencer-Lane. In Lee Newby’s design, a shiny grand piano sits on a revolving stage, surrounded on three sides by the audience (all wearing face coverings of course). The ambience suggests a Manhattan cocktail lounge or, perhaps, a setting for Verdi’s A Masked Ball.

Cathy, a struggling actress begins with the song Still Hurting, expressing anger and pain at the break-up go her five-year relationship with Jamie, a promising novelist. She goes on to tell the story of the relationship in reverse chronological order. In this respect, Brown is emulating Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, realising that foreknowledge of the conclusion lends added poignancy to each of the lyrics. However, in alternating songs, Jamie tells the same story from beginning to end, suggesting to us that, even when they are at their happiest, the couple are never moving along the same track.

Molly Lynch brings out Cathy’s lack of confidenceand self-deprecating humour, giving strong renditions of several comic songs. Oli Higginson’s Jamie is full of nervous energy and far more intense; his frustration at Cathy’s lack of interest in his career is palpable, but he is anything bar a cad and his eventual infidelity looks to be a last resort. The structure of the show gives few opportunities to assess the chemistry between the pair, but, at the point where the two versions of the story intersect, they sit together at the piano and duet The Next Ten Minutes, giving us a glimpse of what might have been.

The show, which runs for just over 90 minutes without an interval, is almost entirely sung through, with only a short reading from Jamie’s novel being spoken. Brown’s music, in varied modern styles, matches the tone of each lyric perfectly, demonstrating why he has often been referred to as the new Sondheim. Musical director and arranger George Dyer does a fine job, leading a five-piece band, which includes the piano, played in turns by the two multi-talented actors.

Some could view the shortage of direct interaction between the two characters as the show’s weakness, but Brown’s intention is to illustrate the universally recognisable dichotomy of lives being lived together and, in parallel, apart. In O’Boyle’s production, Cathy and Jamie sing to someone who is not actually there, but always hovering in the background. They appear bound together uneasily inside a fragile bubble, but the truth is that they are, in similar fashion to those of us watching them, encased in separate perspex boxes.

Performance date: 5 October 2020

Photo: Pamela Raith

Rose (Hope Mill Theatre Online)

Posted: September 10, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Martin Sherman.     Director: Scott Le Crass

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Premiering in 1999, Rose was Martin Sherman’s parting gift to the 20th Century, seemingly presented with a card reading “Good Riddance”. He could not have known what was to follow.

In common with Bent, Sherman’s most famous work, Nazi atrocities during World War II lie at the heart of the drama, but the focus of this story is wider. The play is a monologue, which had Olympia Dukakis playing the title role in the original National Theatre production. Here, in a recording made during lockdown of a one-off production by Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Maureen Lipman is Rose, an 80-year-old naturalised American Jewish woman, reflecting with some confusion on the turbulent events of her life.

Rose was born and raised in a small village in a part of Russia that is now Ukraine, accepting antisemitic persecution as one of life’s norms. As a teenager, she followed her older brother to Poland, ending up in the Warsaw ghetto and the city’s sewers for most of the war. Afterwards, she fled to safety in the promised land of Palestine, prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Our initial reaction could be to think how lucky Rose had been to survive, but Sherman always questions this and the deep bitterness underlying Lipman’s portrayal tells us otherwise.

Director Scott Le Crass’s production is a strange hybrid, possibly unique to modern times. Lipman sits in a pool of light on the darkened stage of an empty theatre and we wonder to whom she could be talking. This is not an intimate chat with each individual viewer, as in the style of the recent Talking Heads series on television, and it is not a recording of a proper theatre production in which the actor would be performing to a live audience and drawing response therefrom. Some visual effects are added, but they feel out of place and add very little.

Leaving these reservations aside, Rose is all about vivid storytelling, both in the writing and the performance. Lipman is mesmerising. Her Rose is, at first glance, desensitised by the traumas in her life, but subtle smiles and grimaces reveal her true emotions, which turn to outright rage when talking of the role of the British Government, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in particular, in trying to stem the flow of Jewish refugees to Palestine.

Sherman’s writing is full of dark humour, brought out with natural ease by Lipman. Rose’s recollections are hazy as she questions whether a childhood event actually happened or was it a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. Similarly, she questions whether her memories of a perilous Mediterranean crossing is from “that Paul Newman movie” (Exodus). Sherman is making the serious point that 20th Century history has become blurred by dramas, adventures and even musicals. He wants to remind us that, inside horrors of enormous proportions lie millions of real individual human tragedies.

Rose is alert to the many ironies in her life as a pawn in a bigger game. She recalls how Hitler and Stalin were friends at one moment and at war the next and how Jews fleeing Poland after the war saw Germany as a safe haven. Her accounts of crossing the Mediterranean will jolt audiences seeing the play more than 20 years after it premiered into seeing a further irony, that of refugees from the Middle East making the same crossing, but in the opposite direction.

Writer: Michael Burdette      Music and lyrics: Robert Scott and Brendan Cull      Director: Brendan Cull

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When Nora Ephron’s film Sleepless in Seattle was released in 1993, the words “social” and “distancing” would not have been commonly linked together, but its story of a romance between Sam and Annie, separated by the width of a continent, makes it perfect to be adapted for the stage in 2020. This is, as the old song goes, “a fine romance with no kisses”.

Sam is a young widower who moves with Jonah, his 10-year-old son, to live on a houseboat in Seattle. Annie is a journalist with the Baltimore Sun who is almost engaged, but having her doubts. When Jonah calls a late night nationwide radio phone-in show to find a new wife for his dad, Annie takes an interest from a professional and a personal viewpoint and Jonah is left to organise a rendezvous on top of the Empire State Building in New York City on St Valentine’s Day.

It took all the charisma that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could muster to save the film from drowning in syrup, but Jay McGuiness (who seems to specialise in stepping into Hanks’ roles) and Kimberley Walsh have ample charm of their own. There are few surprises in Michael Burdette’s book. His biggest problem is that everyone knows where the story is going and he needs the songs, which slot in neatly, to help it on its way.

The large Troubadour is adapted for social distancing. Strangely, when we see a more than half empty auditorium for a musical, our brains are programmed to tell us that we are watching a flop. It takes time to adjust, but there are big compensations. Theatregoers have long yearned for audiences that dare not cough and now they are here. Long may they remain.

Director Morgan Young’s big, slick production cuts no corners. A company of 18 fills the stage, backed by a 12-piece orchestra and Morgan Large’s colourful set designs, using a central revolve, enable swift transitions and allow for scenes in different locations to be on stage simultaneously. Standing out in supporting roles are Tania Mathurin as Annie’s friend Becky, Harriet Thorpe as her mother, Daniel Casey as her almost fiancé Walter, Corey English as Sam’s friend Rob and Charlie Bull as his would be girlfriend Victoria, the lady with the excruciating laugh. The key role of the precocious Jonah is being shared by Theo Collis, Mikey Colville, Jobe Hart and Jack Reynolds.

Simple tunes and lyrics mark the songs by Robert Scott and Brandan Cull. Their style is a cross between 1940s jazz and modern pop. They are catchy enough, but lack a showstopper until Walsh belts out Things I Didn’t Do, after which the show stops, albeit  for the interval. In the second act, a duet for Rob and Jonah, Now or Never, goes one better and earns an encore. Overall, perhaps the songs could have been sold with greater energy if the show had more dancing. The shortage thereof is particularly disappointing when the company is led by a Strictly… winner.

Sleepless… is sentimental and predictable; it manipulates our emotions shamelessly, but resistance proves to be futile. It may not be saying much, but, without a doubt, this is the best musical in town right now

Performance date: 1 September 2020

Beat the Devil (Bridge Theatre)

Posted: September 1, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: David Hare      Director: Nicholas Hytner

⭐️⭐️

David Hare’s most recent play for theatre, I’m Not Running, looked at British left wing politics as they had been many years earlier and, when it opened at the National Theatre in October 2018, he stood accused of living in a time warp. Not so on this occasion. Beat the Devil is as much 2020 as it can get.

The play, a 50-minute monologue, is built around the writer’s own battle with Covid-19 in March and April this year. In theory, the “devil” in the title is the virus, but the actual devil that Hare seems to have in mind is the Conservative Government and what should have been a fascinating insight into the physical and mental impact of the illness disintegrates into a rambling and unconvincing politically motivated rant. 

The play starts promisingly with Hare telling of the first symptoms – the taste of sewage in his mouth, crippling lethargy – and continues at intervals with details of how he and his wife Nicole (Farhi) cope day-to-day. In between and possibly for more than 50% of the running time, Hare launches into a fierce assault on politicians (always emphasising that they are Conservative politicians), including some particularly venomous personal attacks on named individuals. Nothing that Hare says is factually inaccurate, but inconvenient truths are overlooked and his writing is short on wit and fresh detail, while being flavoured strongly with the benefit of hindsight.

We can stay at home and be lectured by Emily Maitliss on government shortcomings, so do we really want to go to a theatre for much of the same? If the answer is “yes”, it is probably because we are so starved of theatre at this time that we would go to see anything and, if we are going to receive a lecture, there could be no one better to deliver it than Ralph Fiennes. His sardonic style and natural gift for comedy paper over many of the play’s cracks and help him to find humour even in parts of the play where Hare has placed none. Director Nicholas Hytner’s production has a large desk centre stage, helping to generate the feel of an academic presentation.

The management and front of house staff at the Bridge Theatre must be congratulated for getting this production, the first in a season of monologues, up and running. Capacity is reduced to under a third of normal, with seats configured as pairs or singles well spaced out, and audiences are made to feel safe at all times.

The theatre is not the BBC and there is no necessity for balance, but, in this case, the omission of key facts that do not support the writer’s case undermines the credibility of everything that he has to say. Beat the Devil is a huge disappointment, but, thankfully, Hare lives to write another play and, hopefully, to return to better form.

Performance date: 31 August 2020

Buster Keaton Collection (Volume 3)

Posted: August 26, 2020 in Cinema

Directors: Buster Keaton, John G Blystone and  James W Horne

 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Around a century after the golden age of silent film comedy, we remember Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and The Keystone Cops, but maybe less so Buster Keaton, who is rated by many as the greatest cinema comic of them all. This limited edition three Blu-ray disc collection of three newly restored feature length classics aims to redress the balance. It comes with multiple informative extras, including a 60-page book, to satisfy cinéastes, but a key test is whether the three films are still up to entertaining 21st Century audiences.

Slight of frame, with a pallid complexion, Keaton’s stone-faced features are accentuated by monochrome cinematography. On looks, he would not be out of place in a horror movie, but he casts himself as the little man, ill equipped to conquer adversity, yet invariably doing so. Audiences like to identify with underdogs and Keaton is one of the screen comedians who gives us early prototypes for such characters.

Our Hospitality (1923) is directed by Keaton and John G Blystone, accompanied here by a symphonic score composed and conducted by Colin Davis. Set in the early 19th Century the film begins in melodramatic style with a shoot-out between the feuding Canfield and McKay families. Baby  William McKay is then sent to New York to be raised by an aunt and, 20 years later, now played by Keaton, he returns to claim his inheritance. The Canfields will stop at nothing to kill him, except when he is receiving hospitality in their home, which would be contrary to the family code of honour.. 

The film has two lengthy sequences which are packed with comic invention. The first covers William’s journey from New York to the Blue Ridge Mountains in one of a line of stage coaches pulled by a steam locomotive along a makeshift railway track. The climactic sequence is a chase through mountains and rivers with plenty of daredevil antics, probably performed without stunt doubles and certainly without green screen technology. The film has dashes of romance and a devoted dog, but sentimentality is kept firmly in check, allowing comedy to reign supreme.

Keaton alone directs Go West (1925), which begins with a caption reading: “Some people travel through life making friends wherever they go, while others just travel through life.” Keaton’s character, named on the credits as simply “Friendless”, is shunned by humans and animals alike, thereby giving the comedy a Chaplinesque air of pathos, particularly when the character becomes attached to Brown Eyes, a lame cow. Accompanied by a jazz influenced score, composed by Rodney Sauer, the film is less structured than the plot driven Our Hospitality and it follows Keaton’s lonely adventures as a drifter, moving from coast to coast stowing away on freight trains.

The middle section, set on a bleak cattle ranch, is overlong and eventually feels drained of comic potential. However, the film moves to a dazzling climax with a cattle drive led by Keaton, through the busy streets of Los Angeles. It is beautifully choreographed mayhem and we have to keep reminding ourselves that what we see on screen is real footage. Repeatedly, expressionless bovine faces mirror Keaton himself, forming part of a succession of surreal images that will live long in the memory.

College (1927) is directed by James W Horne with Keaton and, again, it is accompanied by Sauer’s music. It could be seen as a template for modern day teen romcoms with Keaton, in his early 30s at the time of shooting, playing Ronald, the brainy bookworm in high school who is besotted with Mary, the most popular girl around. He follows her to college, working to pay his way, and is persuaded that the way to win her heart is to excel at sports. 

A warning has to be given here that the film contains a short sequence in which Ronald takes a job as a black waiter, possibly acceptable in the era of Al Jolson, but likely to be seen as offensive today. The triumph of the minnow is at its most touching in College, but the film comes across as the weakest of the three in this collection. This could be because its visual gags, mostly drawing on Ronald’s lack of athletic prowess, have become over familiar through repetition in the intervening years.

2020 has been a miserable year and fresh supplies of laughter could be running low. This collection is a timely reminder that there is plenty of comedy gold in them there Hollywood hills and it is well worth mining.

Available on Blu-ray from 24 August 2020

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Jury (Park Theatre Online)

Posted: August 26, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Martin Murphy      Director: Amy Allen

 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“As many intervals as you like!” boasts North London’s Park Theatre in the publicity for this World Premier streaming of Martin Murphy’s play. This may come as good news for some, but better news for most is that the hour-long production is sufficiently gripping to make zero intervals the likely norm.

The play was developed by the theatre’s Script Class, working with director Amy Allen, over 10 weeks during lockdown. Its premise is that the backlog of cases awaiting trials in the courts has become so great due to the pandemic that they must be heard by juries based in their homes, using Zoom. To this end, eight women and four men assemble remotely, presided over by foreperson Mel (Jacquie Cassidy), acting like a bossy headmistress as she munches on her soggy sandwiches.

We witness just the jury’s deliberations, not the full proceedings, so we are not asked to arrive at our own verdicts and this is not a suspense thriller in the mould of Twelve Angry Men, it is a socially observant comedy. The case concerns a successful white professional woman who is accused of sexually assaulting an under-age black boy and then paying substantial hush money to his family. The accusations are chosen cleverly to bring out the prejudices and ignorances of individual jury members and maybe the audiences.

Anya (Sara Odeen-Isbister) is a world weary Ukrainian who sides with the accused, Jal (Stefania Jardim) relates everything to the chips on her own shoulders, while many others are more concerned with solving the mysteries of Zoom and social media than those of the case before them. Gender politics, drug addiction and age divides all feature in the lively discussions, with Allen cutting rapidly between the jury members to give the production a pacy feel.

Strangely, no males under the approximate age of 60 serve on this jury, but, otherwise, Murphy captures the chaos that ensues when a broad cross section of society gathers together, all seeing nothing from the same perspective. As a snapshot of our divided United Kingdom, the play is sharply relevant and very funny.

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

Blindness (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: August 12, 2020 in Theatre

Playwright: Simon Stephens.      Original novel: José Saramago      Director: Walter Meierjohann

Unsold seats at the Donmar Warehouse are a rarity. Top quality theatre at reasonable prices in an auditorium that holds few more than 200 leads to high demand, so the first sight of the space only a quarter full provides an unnerving experience and unnerving is exactly what Simon Stephens’ new play is intended to be.

The Donmar’s production is described as an “installation”, possibly transferable to other venues after here. There are no live performances.  Running for just over an hour, each show observes strict social distancing rules and theatre staff make sure that they are seen to be enforcing them. Hand sanitisers are provided. All the Donmar’s normal seating and the stage are removed so that it looks like what it must once have been – a warehouse. The audience is seated on wooden chairs, singly or in pairs in their bubbles, well spaced around the floor. Headphones are provided and face masks are mandatory at all times within the building.

The play is an adaptation of the 1995 dystopian novel, Blindness, by José Saramago, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Stephens’ version begins like an audio book, with Juliet Stevenson telling the story in the third person of a man who suddenly loses his sight while driving his car; he is helped by another man who takes advantage of the situation and steals the car, before going blind himself. The focus then turns to the ophthalmologist treating the cases, who also goes blind and Stevenson takes the role of his wife, the only character in the story who, inexplicably, remains fully sighted.

Walter Meierhohann’s production is designed to give the audience the experience of blindness, with several prolonged blackouts and to emphasise the power afforded by sightedness. However, the story works on another level by chronicling the helplessness of government to respond effectively to an unprecedented health crisis and highlighting, in considerable detail, the fragility of a social order that can quickly collapse. Some of these themes are all too fresh in our minds and wrapped up inside Stephens’ rich and insightful script, they become engrossing.

Binaural sound effects are not a particular novelty, but sound designers Ben and Max Ringham put them to spectacular use here. In the play’s longest and most disturbing sequence, set in a disintegrating hospital ward, Stevenson can be heard at one moment screaming in anger in the distance and, at the next, whispering gently into our ears. The temptation to turn and look her in the face is often irresistible. Her range is astonishing and, if her performance is one-dimensional, it is only such in the most technical sense. Lizzie Clachan’s design has a futuristic feel, focussing on thin strips of light that descend to head level, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting creates startling effects to break into the darkness.

In the final analysis, is this installation any different from a radio play? Yes it is significantly different and better, not just due to the visual effects, but predominantly because the experience is shared through being part of a live audience. There is still a long way to go, but theatre is on its way back.

Performance date: 7 August 2020

Photo: Helen Maybanks

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com

Writer: Jean Poiret      Translator: Simon Callow      Director: Jez Bond

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Before the 1978 French film, its two sequels, the Hollywood remake (The Birdcage) and the Jerry Herman musical, there was a play, written by Jean Poiret in 1973. So here we go back to basics, La Cage aux Folles with “the play “ being emphasised in the title, presumably to kill off any expectations for one of the main characters to burst into I Am What I Am. 

Simon Callow’s new translation strips away the excessively sugary coating stuck to Harvey Fierstein’s book for the musical and focuses on the original broad farce. Possibly seen as daring almost 50 years ago, Poiret’s depiction of LGBTQ+ lifestyles and attitudes towards them looks quaint from the perspective of 2020, just as Georges Feydeau’s versions of late 19th/early 20th Century infidelity are now viewed as archaic. However, the works of both French farceurs live on, because they build their comedy around ridiculing pomposity and hypocrisy, which are, of course, timeless.

The play’s title refers to a St Tropez drag club, owned  by Georges (Michael Matus) and boasting as its star attraction Zaza, aka Albin (Paul Hunter). Both septuagenarians, they have lived together as a gay couple above the club, for the last 15 years. However, Georges has a 20-year-old son, Laurent (Arthur Hughes), conceived after a drunken night out in Paris, who arrives home with the news that he is about to marry and that the parents of his intended – a right wing politician father and a stuck-up, moralising mother – are planning to drop in for dinner. 

Act one establishes the characters and their situations with such precision that the dinner party mayhem that follows in act two feels like something of an anticlimax. Apart from the names of people and places, Callow leaves very little that is distinctively French in his script and director Jez Bond prefers British regional accents to any that might have come from across the Channel. What matters more is that Poiret’s humour translates into a string of very funny lines and Bond’s featherlight, pacy staging comes up with several clever visual gags.

Georges and Albin are roles that give actors automatic licence to go as far over the top as they want. Matus and Hunter take the licence with flamboyant glee. They are the archetypal bickering “married” couple but the absence of a convincing romantic connection between them highlights where the play is so different from the musical. Hughes has a confident air, playing the straight (in every sense) man to several clowns around him and Syrus Lowe as the outrageous Belgian houseboy, Jacob, steals scene after scene, standing out among a strong company.

Beige decor and an art deco staircase are the key features of Tim Shortall’s classy design,

with risqué paintings and a pink velvet chaise longue in the first act being replaced by religious emblems and a dinner table for the second. His garish frocks, large wigs and feather boas add splashes of colour. It can prove a challenge to keep this type of comedy bubbling non-stop and, sure enough, Bond’s production loses some of its fizz in the final quarter, but not enough of it to dampen a very jolly evening of old-fashioned fun.

Performance date: 19 February 2019

The Dog Walker (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Posted: February 15, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Paul Minx      Director: Harry Burton

⭐️💫

In big cities, dog walkers often feel as if they exist in a parallel universe, exchanging greetings and smiles with each other while the rest of the population goes about its business obliviously, showing nothing better than indifference. American playwright Paul Minx recognises that there is something about canines that brings human beings together with this edgy comic two-hander, set entirely in a cramped apartment in New York City.

The tiny Jermyn street theatre does “cramped” well and it looks as if designer Isabella van Braeckel has collected litter from nearby Piccadilly Circus for her set, which is cluttered, untidy and could be as filthy as the script describes it. It is the home of  Keri (Victoria Yeates), a reclusive writer of e-books and a pill-popping neurotic. She dotes on her 16-year-old Pekinese bitch, inappropriately named Wolfgang Amadeus. We gather from the opening scene that Keri is barking mad.

Herbert (Andrew Dennis) is a professional dog walker of Jamaican origin, employed by the International Pups agency. Arriving to take Wolfgang A for a stroll, slyly he takes a swig from a bottle of vodka, before announcing to Keri that he is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who has been sober for 17 years. He is sexually repressed, takes all his guidance from “Mummy” and we gather from the opening scene that Herbert is also barking mad.

Odd couple comedies, in the style of Neil Simon, are not a rarity, but attempts by this one to make itself distinctive lead just to it moving from the predictable to the unpalatable. The only direction that the play can take is towards the troubled pair finding some sort of redemption through each other, but, if Minx intended these two characters to become loveable, Harry Burton’s overcooked production lets him down. Yeates and Dennis give their all, often pushing their performances to levels of near-hysteria, but Keri and Herbert are always more irksome than quirky and empathy is in as short supply as laughter.

Happily, no dogs have been harmed in the staging of this production, but, sadly, no real dogs appear in it. The running time is around 90 minutes, with no interval, and many in the audience could feel a strong urge to go walkies long before the end.

Performance date: 14 February 2020

The Haystack (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: February 12, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Al Blyth      Director: Roxana Silbert

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It is often said that the test of a good thriller is the extent to which it can suspend disbelief  and gloss over implausibilities in the plotting. The Haystack, Al Blyth’s debut play, is a spy thriller, a rarity in theatre, and it passes the test with flying colours, while also providing a framework for debates on several burning contemporary issues. Many of the underlying themes are similar to those in Wild, Mike Bartlett’s play alluding to the Edward Snowden affair, which was also staged at Hampstead Theatre.

Staff at the Government’s GCHQ surveillance centre in Cheltenham are told in the play that, in order to find all the needles, you need to see the whole haystack, thereby justifying a strategy in which everyone is suspected of possible ill-doing and not just a selected few. Blyth questions intrusions into privacy and sets the need of Security Services to protest secrets against the role of the press to reveal them. There is a flavour of Kafka in the writer’s depiction of the big state oppressing the little person, but Blyth’s style also taps into the natural fear shared by all of us that mightier powers could victimise and overcome us. With a formula that is a cross between Kafka, Hitchcock and le Carré, the play is a heady brew.

Computer geeks, Neil (Oliver Johnstone) and Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) are assigned to GCHQ under the supervision of the coldly authoritative Hannah (Sarah Woodward), who only answers questions on a “need to know” basis. In London, Cora (Rona Morison) a junior reporter working for The Guardian, is discussing with her editor, Denise (Lucy Black) how to use a potentially explosive story to be gained from her friendship with an exiled Saudi Princess, who is later found dead in mysterious circumstances. GCHQ puts Cora under surveillance and tracks her day and night, wherever she goes and whatever she does.

Morison’s Cora is, at the same time, steely and vulnerable. Too fond of vodka and buckling under the strain of work pressures, she becomes a threat to herself and, when Neil steps out of the cyber world and into the real world to help her, lives begin to unravel. Johnstone is completely convincing, both as the work-obsessed techno wizard with zero social skills and the besotted lover that Neil transforms into. Okoronkwa is also excellent as the laddish Zef, urging his long-time buddy to draw back from the clash between work and private obligations. A segment at the beginning of the second act in which scenes of romance and bromance are intercut slickly, is riveting, but it is just one outstanding feature of director Roxana Silbert’s often dazzling production.

The Hampstead stage is extended to its widest, with a central thrust, to accommodate Tom Piper’s design of multiple moveable screens, which are used for projections of images and also to separate locations. There is always a feeling that someone is watching from the shadows, however far away they may actually be. Silbert injects the fluidity and pace more commonly associated with a fast-moving screen thriller, but ensures that Blyth’s bang-up-to-date, troubling factual references come across with clarity.

The Haystack is a rollercoaster ride that allows little time to pause for breath. Yes, there are aspects of the plot that do not quite stack up, but they only come to mind on the journey home and, by then, it is too late for them to spoil the evening’s enjoyment.

Performance date: 10 February 2020

Photo: Alastair Muir