DramaReviewSouth West

Our Man in Havana – Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Writer:  Adapted by Clive Francis from the novel by Graham Greene

Director:  Amanda Knott

Reviewer:  Becca Savory Fuller

Jim Wormold is just a struggling vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana, until a mysterious British gentleman enters his shop.  The sharply-suited Hawthorn seems scarcely interested in vacuum cleaners, and so begins Wormold’s descent into the world of international espionage.

Our Man in Havana is a faithful retelling of the Graham Greene novel, adapted for the stage by Clive Francis.  The production stars four versatile performers: Isla Carter, Charles Davies, James Dinsmore, Michael Onslow.  Between them they bring to life some 30-odd characters from Greene’s novel, evoking life in the sweltering streets of Havana, as well as the narrator voice of the author himself.  Charles Davies as the hapless Wormold and James Dinsmore as his old friend Dr Hasselbacher and MI6 agent Hawthorn are strong lead characters, driving each scene with a confident energy and humour.

The production is the work of established, Devon-based touring company Creative Cow, led by Artistic Director Amanda Knott.  It demonstrates the confidence and experience of Knott’s long career in Dance and Theatre, from Rambert Dance to Kent Opera, and as Associate Director at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.  The pace and flow of the story-telling are deftly handled, with movement, rhythm and an imaginative use of space that reflect Knott’s background in choreography. 

This fluid, mobile approach to the story is well supported by stage design from Nina Raines and lighting design from Derek Anderson.  Both are highly effective at adapting to the rapid changes of scene, capturing numerous locations with clever changes to the stage space.  Their design is simple, evoking the warmth, sun and humid streets of Old Havana through a few key elements and an attention to texture and space.

The actors navigate these quick scene changes with some skill, but the adaptation struggles with a challenge common to translating a novel for film or stage.  How to fit all the narrative details in?  While the novel has space for numerous details and shifts in time and space, the stage requires a crisper, more pared-back approach to dramatic structure.  Despite an energetic start, with rapid changes and a confident flow, the production starts to drag toward the interval.  It seems to be trying hard to fit in enough narrative detail to get us to a suitably climactic break, and the first half feels somewhat long.  The flow of short scenes becomes predictable, losing rhythm as the characters narrate one event after another, another and another.

There is potential for more innovative visual imagery from the versatile cast too.  A cleverly-realised car scene is a highlight of this creative approach and is much enjoyed by the audience, but it stands alone in a largely script-driven production.  Meanwhile, there is more to develop in the desperate energy of the climax, which is never quite fully unleashed.  As Wormold seeks revenge in a final dangerous, booze-filled night of confrontation, the decision for actors to mime their drinking seems to lack a visceral energy that might lift the drama.

Despite these challenges, Creative Cow’s production delivers in its story-telling.  For those looking for a well-constructed approach to Graham Greene’s classic novel, this adaptation has plenty to offer.

Runs until 8 July 2017 | Image: Contributed

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