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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Hampstead Theatre


  Lisa Dillon and Alec Newman/ Ph: Alastair Muir

When it was first seen in 1988, Tom Stoppard’s dizzying elision of art and science, with its serpentine plot, multiple identities and complex quantum physics, left critics and audiences confounded. It was baffling, they complained, and it had no heart. This terrific revival by Howard Davies still offers a significant mental workout, no doubt about it. But it’s also fun, and funny. As for the heart, well, it pulses away quietly beneath all the dramatic, linguistic and intellectual brilliance, thumping most loudly when you least expect it. Structurally, the play is so intricately conceived, so neat; life, of course, is much messier and more mysterious. That it’s often too mysterious to be completely understood is partly the play’s point – as is the fact that it can be frustrating, thrilling, absurd. Allow all these elements, and their elegant interaction, to trip through your brain and imagination, and suddenly, a drama that might have seemed dauntingly complex becomes deliciously exhilarating. The trick – and trick it is, resisting the urge to try, helplessly, to catch hold of its quicksilver brilliance – is relaxation.
Stoppard’s subject – at least ostensibly – is Cold War espionage. At its centre is Hapgood, ingenious, cool and so clever that she plays chess on the telephone without bothering with pieces or a board. Predating both our awareness of MI5’s Stella Rimington and Judi Dench as James Bond’s M, in Davies’ staging, the character is portrayed with wit and authority by Lisa Dillon – and it would appear that her chess game is played with the men she works with, as well as her unseen opponent. They call her Mother. She’s a real mother to a young son, Joe, whose school rugby matches she cheers while her mind whirrs on state business. She also has a network of “joes” – deep cover agents, one of whom is Kerner (excellent Alec Newman), a Soviet operative and physics expert, who is also, it turns out, an ex-lover. There’s a mole in the organisation passing Star Wars secrets to the “Sovs,” and as Hapgood tries to identify the leak, Stoppard leads us through a dazzling hall of mirrors full of subterfuge, stings, doubles and twins, and illuminated by Kerner’s invocation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and theories of particular and waveform light. In other words, in every possible sense, nothing is quite what it seems. Or is it?
Davies’ production looks filmic – designed by Ashley Martin-Davis and Ian William Galloway, it features glossy video walls across which ripple images that whisk us from hotel rooms to rendezvous at a zoo and closeted government offices – but it’s triumphantly theatrical. The opening sequence is so impishly amusing and so slickly achieved that it makes you want to laugh out loud in sheer delight. In the changing rooms of a public swimming baths, shadowy figures in black leather and raincoats, or just in towels, glide in and out of a row of cubicles in a fugue of balletic movement and growing tension, briefcases changing hands, expressions artfully neutral, while noirish music plays. It’s farce of the most graceful order. And there’s a tiny but unforgettable moment when Wates (Gary Beadle), Hapgood’s irascible U.S. opposite number) demands lemon in his tea. They’ve none in, says Maggs, Hapgood’s secretary. Tsk, tsk, you must always keep a lemon, she replies, and produces one from a high-end shopping bag, purchased especially, under the nose of Wates’ CIA operatives, who were watching her. There it sits on her desk, a glowing, bright yellow insult disguised as a courtesy: Hapgood may have remembered how Wates takes his tea, but he, she suggests, is the only “lemon” in the room.
Both play and production are crammed with such sharp little jokes. But Stoppard is not so busy chuckling, or enjoying his erudition, to make us think about what the personal cost is of dedication like Hapgood’s, or how double-edged the gender politics might be that surround a woman in her position. Every performance in this multi-faceted creation is impeccable, with Gerald Kyd as a brutal, slippery operative Ridley and Tim McMullan as her smooth superior Blair. As a whole, if its challenges are not inconsiderable, its pleasures are myriad.


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