Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 17 November 2018
After the Salisbury-Novichok affair, there is a sour laugh when Stewart, the MI5 official, reassures the nervous Jackson family that the coming arrest of their neighbours for espionage won’t put them at physical risk: “The KGB doesn’t use hooligans for this sort of operation.” Clearly, things were more civilised in 1960s Moscow than under Putin.
Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 play, immaculately set in every humble postwar detail, reconstructs a real case: the plight of a hapless suburban couple who found their daughter’s bedroom requisitioned for surveillance of the opposite neighbours. Who were also their best friends, amis de la maison, friendly Canadians Helen and Peter Kroger. Only they weren’t Canadians and they weren’t friends, but experienced and committed Communists transmitting naval secrets to the Soviets.
If you are an addict of Le Carré and his Cold War Circus operatives – all watchers and lamplighters and safe-houses – you glimpse in his humane books the innocent ordinary people across Europe who are used by agents as “cover”, often for years. But rarely is the emotional violence of it as beautifully evoked as here. We first get a delicately, humorously drawn picture of the watching household’s ordinariness: cosy, affectionate Barbara and Bob and their teenage daughter Juliet. Then there’s sharp class awareness as steady, worried Bob (Chris Larkin) is awkwardly polite to the patrician MI5 officer Stewart: Jasper Britton, deliberately bumbling with public-school amiability over an edge of steel. Macy Nyman’s Juliet is at first thrilled, eyes bright at the excitement but not understanding that her “auntie Helen” might be under suspicion as well as the mystery man.
At the play’s heart though is the most betrayed of them all: Barbara, whose decorous life has been enhanced for five years by the loud, funny, risqué, huggingly open friendship of Tracy Ann Oberman’s Helen. Finty Williams is a marvellous Barbara, sweetly and humbly housewifely, sharp-witted enough to suspect her friends and decent enough to try not to; in the end patriotic enough to resist a passionate wish to warn them. She is endearingly motherly with the policewomen staking out her daughter’s bedroom and increasingly resentful of the careless patriarchal authority of Stewart.
Finely and painfully drawn, without a single false note, is the good woman’s distress at having to hide what she knows from her daughter, and keep up a front, in electrically uncomfortable scenes , with the friend she still loves. The part was created 35 years ago by Judi Dench and won her an Olivier opposite her husband Michael Williams . Well, nobody could deny their daughter as high an accolade. It is the hardest kind of part, to be an innocent. Finty Williams nails it with heart and finesse.
The careful precision of Hannah Chissick’s production takes you right back into that time. Not only in the latter part when Stewart reminds them of the Lubianka and the ruthless KGB , but in the daily details: Bob’s cardiganed decent ordinariness, Barbara’s paper- pattern dressmaking for Helen , even the brief scorn of the two young police women changing shifts. They pinch the odd biscuit, accept sausages for lunch, and make tea in the kitchen while they reflect on the housewife life of poor Barbara “Dusting and washing and polishing and cooking, no wonder she’s as dull as she is”.
But she’s not. So Finty Williams deserves an award too.
Box office. 020 7378 1713. To 17nov