Major spoiler alert! Here’s an interesting little timeline for you:
1961: Ruislip residents Helen and Peter Kroger (real names Lona and Morris Cohen) were sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment for spying for the Russians.
1969: They were released and exchanged for a Briton, Gerald Brooke, who was in jail in Moscow; and they flew to Poland.
1971: Having met Gay Search, today a presenter of gardening programmes, but then a young journalist who was the Krogers’ neighbour, Hugh Whitemore writes a BBC Play of the Month, Act of Betrayal, based on the facts of the case.
1983: Hugh Whitemore expands his play into a more fictionalised account, calls it Pack of Lies, and it plays at the Lyric Theatre in the West End, starring Michael Williams and Judi Dench.
1995: Having spent years training Soviet agents in Moscow, and then retiring on KGB pensions, Morris (Peter) dies; Lona (Helen) had died three years earlier. They were recipients of the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Friendship of Nations, and post-dissolution of the USSR, Yeltsin gave them the honour Hero of the Russian Federation.
2018: Michael Williams and Judi Dench’s daughter Finty Williams stars in a revival of Pack of Lies at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
I knew – but I’d forgotten – before seeing this production that it was largely based on the true story outlined above; the Krogers were at the heart of a major espionage scandal that shocked the media in the early 1960s, being part of the Portland Spy Ring who had infiltrated the Royal Navy. As portrayed in Pack of Lies, their cover, their back-story, their pretence with the naively innocent Jackson family (in real life, Ruth, Bill and Gay Search) was immaculate.
The question in this play is, who pays the price? The Krogers are imprisoned, so they do the time for their crime, but they were lucky to be released early, and their lives are privileged once they leave jail. The country paid a price – who knows what damage their information gathering did to the security of the UK, and whether lives were lost as a result? Always hard to quantify an unknown.
But it’s the Jacksons whom we see pay the biggest price. Can you imagine what it would be like to discover that your best friend, your most trusted ally (outside, perhaps of your closest family members) was working as a spy all along, and that you were merely cultivated in order to create a more convincing fabrication to conceal their activities? Everything you ever held true would be flung into doubt. You could never trust another word anyone said. It would be – literally – shattering. And what about having to break that news to your very trusting daughter? That growing fear that something is going wrong, followed by the ultimate proof that you’ve been taken for a fool all along, is what this play achieves best.
1960 was a spartan time, and Hannah Chissick’s production nicely paints a picture of a society where your friend makes your dress from materials, and you wait your turn to have a cup of tea, you can’t just have a cuppa willy-nilly any time any place. Bob comes home from a hard day at work and merely replaces his jacket with his cardigan to spend the evening with his newspaper – no changing his shirt or removing his tie for him. Paul Farnsworth’s set suggests an adequate but not opulent lifestyle; re-covered soft furnishings, basic kitchen cupboards – but would they really have had such a modern looking toaster? Surely the toast would have been prepared under the grill at the top of the oven? I did love the attention to detail elsewhere though, with the vintage packets of cereals and the Susie Cooper tea-set.
It’s fair to say that the play progresses at a gentle pace. This allows for maximum scene-setting and a useful appreciation of the apparent relationship between the Jacksons and the Krogers. The opening scenes are full of very nice observations and characterisations, and, although nothing much happens, the performance level keeps you entertained. By the time that Mr Stewart – who’s emphatically not a policeman, but is definitely a law enforcer – starts to ingratiate himself with the Jackson family, I was beginning to wonder if anything was ever going to start happening. I was still enjoying it, but very much at a loss regarding the direction it was heading. However, as the truth of the situation starts to emerge, the story becomes surprisingly gripping, and the emotional fall-out at the end of the play creates a very moving and powerful climax.
Finty Williams and Chris Larkin are a perfect match for the central characters of Barbara and Bob Jackson. They’re both very formal performances, full of that sense of repression that followed the austere 1950s, making an excellent juxtaposition with the extravagant demonstrativeness of the Krogers. Ms Williams beautifully conveys all Barbara’s little fears and paranoias, and her deep trembling emotion that only occasionally is allowed to creep to the surface. Mr Larkin’s Bob is reserved and passive; knows his limitations and is grateful for what he’s got; mindful of doing the right thing and not wishing to stir up trouble, whilst still being as good a protector for his family as he can.
Macy Nyman is excellent as daughter Julie; full of enthusiasm for anything new, just like a good teenager should be, but also well brought-up so she’s polite and obliging with Mr Stewart; and feels totally at ease with the Krogers, whom she calls Auntie and Uncle. Jasper Britton is very convincing as Stewart; authoritatively refusing to answer any question that he simply can’t and doing so with as much honesty as possible. The ever reliable Tracy-Ann Oberman is brilliant as Helen Kroger, never missing an opportunity for some brash New York style advice; ironically coming across as the epitome of bright kindness. And Alasdair Harvey is also very good as Peter Kroger, the quieter, more sensible half of the marriage; you could easily imagine him as an antiquarian book dealer, until he delivers his rather creepy but very illuminating address to the audience about how his life changed in 1932 when he attended his first Communist party meeting.
Production photos by Nobby Clark