Review – Pack of Lies, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th October 2018

Major spoiler alert! Here’s an interesting little timeline for you:

Pack of Lies1961: 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.

Macy Nyman, Finty WilliamsI 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.

Macy Nyman, Alasdair Harvey, Tracy-Ann ObermanThe 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.

Jasper Britton, Finty WilliamsBut 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.

Finty Williams, Jasper Britton, Chris Larkin1960 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.

Tracy-Ann Oberman, Finty Williams, Macy NymanIt’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, Tracy-Ann ObermanFinty 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.

Jasper BrittonMacy 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. Tracy-Ann Oberman, Finty WilliamsAnd 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.

Finty WilliamsAn engrossing play, with some immaculate performances. An unusual choice for a revival? Possibly. But very rewarding nonetheless. On at the Menier until 17th November.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – Yes Prime Minister, Derngate, Northampton, 9th June 2011

Yes Prime MinisterI don’t have to tell you how much of a landmark television programme Yes Minister and then Yes Prime Minister were during the 1980s. They attracted massive audiences and gilded the already glowing careers of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne. If you catch a repeat episode today, it still makes you shake with laughter, revealing hypocrisy, pricking pomposity, rescuing triumph from tragedy.

Thus the Derngate theatre was pretty much packed last night with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age and class who would have been loyal fans of the TV show. Mrs Chrisparkle was a loyal fan of the show in her youth and was probably the youngest member of the audience. No criticism here – it’s great to see a production providing something that people want to see and the concept of bums on seats is good for everyone.

The scene is Chequers – all very convincing wood panelling and bookcases; and its windows and external brickwork definitely reminded us of the walks we used to do years ago that crossed the Chequers estate when we were Bucks based. It’s a timeless location; and serves to reflect the Yes Prime Minister of the 1980s and the updated 21st century version equally well. For indeed Jim Hacker is today Prime Minister of a coalition government, facing modern issues such as the banks, global warming, and public sector cuts. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the same three people (Jim, Humphrey and Bernard) – or at least three people with the same names and jobs – are still in charge of the country thirty years on; but you accept it nonetheless.

However, the script is firmly as PC as it would be in the 1980s, if not 70s. In fact it’s one of the most xenophobic pieces I’ve come across in a long time. From the Prime Minister’s early references to wops, dagoes, micks and polacks (inter alia), through taking the rise out of our European partners, to a plot progression which suggests some perilously dire consequences for some people but it’s ok because they are only foreigners, I personally found a lot of the content a bit distasteful. This is definitely a world that has never come into contact with Ben Elton, and makes Terry Wogan’s “Johnny Foreigner” positively diplomatic.

I wondered how the production would treat the concept of bringing back much loved characters associated with much loved actors and make it work without the original cast. Would they indeed be the same characters? Would they be doing impersonations? Would they be completely different? Well, yes they are more or less the same characters, they certainly aren’t impersonations and they are somewhat different.

Simon WilliamsSimon Williams plays Sir Humphrey and he comes across as a much more benign figure than Nigel Hawthorne. You feel that he isn’t quite so devious as his 1980s counterpart, a little more aloof, a little more enjoying the luxury of power, more laid back, less Machiavellian, almost avuncular. I don’t know if Simon Williams had a cold, but his voice wasn’t very clear or powerful when we saw it and this detracted from the natural authority you associate with the role. However, he admirably coped with Sir Humphrey’s long obfuscating speeches, which twice earned him a round of applause from the appreciative audience. After the first one, I saw Richard McCabe as the PM mouth “Well done” to him.

Richard McCabeRichard McCabe plays Jim Hacker a little more cynically than Paul Eddington – this PM is purely interested in self-preservation. All his plans are devised to secure his own political tenure, Richard McCabe's astonished lookand you sense that if this causes something which is a boost to the country, that’s merely a fortunate bonus. This is perhaps a slightly more realistic updated character; but he is also more of a buffoon too, reverting to childishness when really Up Against It, and adopting a look of astonishment perhaps a little to readily.

Chris LarkinChris Larkin as Bernard Woolley is perhaps the most different from the TV characterisation. His Bernard is rather camp, a terribly public-school prig; and when he does his set-piece speeches which correct grammar or metaphor, he comes across as a bit of an arrogant arse whereas Derek Fowlds’ Bernard was more genuinely earnest. I didn’t get a sense of his real personality.

Charlotte LucasWhereas Simon Williams played the whole thing straight and gave it credibility, both Messrs McCabe and Larkin frequently went into pantomime mode with their facial expressions and general comic business, which felt a bit unbalanced. The two other major characters, Charlotte Lucas as Claire the policy adviser and Kevork Malikyan as the ambassador, were both very straightforward and realistic and were excellent. However, in a cameo role, Michael Fenton Stevens as the political presenter interviewing the PM on TV seemed to me to go way over the top on the stunned facial expressions, paving the way to what I felt was rather a sudden and underwhelming climax to the play.

Kevork MalikyanWithout doubt, there were some extremely funny sequences. I loved the Prime Minister’s prayer scene. It’s exactly how you think a PM would pray. Sir Humphrey’s script is well written and full of entertaining observations. And the biggest belly laugh of the night actually went to a prop – I’ll say no more. But the revelation of the sexual proclivities of the Kumrani Minister, whilst sharply focusing the play in the modern era, actually served to reduce the comic effect somewhat, and I did find the constant xenophobia persistently irritating.

Michael Fenton StevensThat said, the appreciative audience laughed a lot, especially in the second half, and it was warmly received at curtain call. Maybe the overall problem with it is that it takes 2 hours 20 minutes to tell a story that 30 years ago would have been more pithily condensed into a half-hour programme. It was good, there were some laughs, but we expected more.