Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hap Not Bad

Hapgood, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday April 12 2008, 7.30pm.

Spy stories have featured in an increasing number of your covert correspondent's cultural diversions in the last year or so, including William Boyd's thrilling, elegant 'Restless', William Gibson's intriguing shaggy dog story 'Spook Country' and Paul Verhoeven's WW2 espionage drama 'Black Book'. So was sufficiently intrigued to make a furtive foray to the Birmingham Rep to see their revival of Tom Stoppard's late 80s spy drama 'Hapgood', in which Josie Lawrence plays the titular spymaster, who juggles protecting national security with the travails of single motherhood as she tries to track down a missing suitcase and identify a double agent from within her team.

The play manages for the most part to be reasonably exciting, particularly either side of the interval, and features some well-choreographed and brilliantly puzzling setpieces and an attention-grabbing turn from David Birrell as a Northern English agent with a chip on his shoulder almost as large as his hard-on for Lawrence's spymaster. But taken as a whole piece, the play fails to fully satisfy on a number of different levels.

Firstly, Stoppard's attempt to weave a meditation on quantum mechanics within the framework of a spy story, based broadly on a linking theme of 'the duality of all things', opens the project up to accusations of pretentiousness that may well see a successful prosecution. Secondly, any play where the central role was written for a specific actress (in this case, Felicity Kendal) has a difficult task in recasting for a revival, and Ms Lawrence, while a logical choice in her Kendal-like straddling of mumsy and sexy, struggles to make the part her own. Finally, and perhaps fatally, even a high-minded, philosophical melodrama of subterfuge needs to be grounded by some kind of emotional pull and the central relationships which should provide this - between thwarted lovers, and mother and son - miserably fail to convince. A shame that for all the interesting elements on display that a production featuring so much scientific rumination should fizzle out through palpable lack of chemistry.



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