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

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