Writer: Hugh Whitemore
Director: Hannah Chissick
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Recent events in Salisbury have brought back the chill of the Cold War, making this revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 play particularly timely and, with the Menier’s air-conditioning on a high setting, the audience feels that chill too. Pack of Lies is based on the real-life Portland Spy Ring affair of the early 1960s, telling the story of an infiltration by Soviet spies into a mundane middle-class community in leafy Ruislip.
Barbara and Bob Jackson, the couple whose home is used by the Security Services to observe suspected Soviet agents across the road, were played in the original West End production by Judi Dench and Michael Williams. Here, their daughter, Finty Williams, is Barbara and Maggie Smith’s son, Chris Larkin, is Bob. Enthusiasts for thespian trivia will also note that Jasper Briton, who plays Stewart (we assume an MI5 agent), is the son of veteran actor Tony Britton.
The play contrasts ordinary everyday suburban British life with the fictional worlds of John le Carré and Ian Fleming. Paul Farnsworth’s meticulously detailed set and costumes capture ‘60s drab perfectly. An unfitted kitchen sits beside a cosy wall-papered living room, an open staircase rises from the hallway and a black Ford Consul is parked on the street outside. The production’s design is so of the period that it does the play the disservice of magnifying its old-fashioned style.
Barbara and Bob are “the sort of people who queue and don’t ask questions”. They and their teenage daughter, Julie (Macy Nyman) have become close friends with the Krugers, the Canadian couple who have lived across the road for the last five years. Peter (Alasdair Harvey) works mostly from home and Helen (Tracy-Ann Oberman) loves partying. On reflection, maybe a spy who wants to be as unobtrusive as possible would be less brash than the Helen seen here, but spies the Krugers are suspected of being and Britton’s stern and dapper Stewart bullies the Jacksons into allowing their house to be used as his observation base. Thelma (Natalie Walter) and Sally (Sia Dauda) take turns to keep watch from the front bedroom.
The scene-setting first act of director Hannah Chissick’s production is slow and ponderous, not compensating for the sparkle that is missing from Whitemore’s dialogue. It feels as if the writer and the actors are laying on the dreariness of Barbara and Bob too thickly and thereby making the drama dreary as well. However, intriguing themes begin to emerge, questioning the nature of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. At the heart of the play lies the dilemma of whether or not personal bonds between friends are or should be stronger than bonds with the State.
Main characters all take turns to speak directly to the audience, explaining matters that do not emerge naturally from the scenes, and this gives us useful insights. Once the production is in full stride in the second act, Williams and Larkin give fine performances, she falling apart as a result of her forced duplicity and he standing as her rock, but crumbling inside. Ultimately the play develops to become an overwrought, but nonetheless gripping drama.
Runs until 17 November 2018 |Image: Nobby Clark