When it first appeared in 1988, Tom Stoppard’s espionage comedy/thriller may have been viewed as a requiem for the Cold War era, then drawing to a close. Now, Mr Putin could have given it renewed topical relevance. Stoppard’s cynical take is that all the MI6, CIA and KGB shenanigans were comparable to games of chess and served no greater purpose. He makes his case emphatically, beginning with a farcical exchange of packages in the changing room of a swimming pool and taking us through the duplicitous dealings of double/treble/quadruple agents. Elizabeth Hapgood (Lisa Dillon) is a very modern figure, juggling being a single mother with her role as a prominent secret agent, working alongside Blair (Tim McMullan), Ridley (Gerald Kyd) and her “Joe” (the Russian she recruited), Kerner (Alec Newman) to ferret out the traitor in their midst. It is all familiar from books, films and television, but novel for the theatre and it is this freshness that helps Howard Barker’s well paced production to glide over the absurdities of the plot. Ashley Martin Davis’ set with banks of television screens changing constantly also helps, as do four superb leading performances. Rambling passages of vintage, mind boggling Stoppard do not overwhelm the play nor interrupt its flow and some welcome human touches are surprisingly moving. Stoppard has a lot to say about relations between Russia and the West and delving deeper into the text could prove worthwhile. However, on a purely superficial level, Hapgood gives us one of the most entertaining evenings in the theatre seen for quite a while.
Performance date: 6 January 2016