Saturday, 21 February 2009

Pack of Lies - Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Pack of Lies by Hugh Whitemore
Director: Christopher Morahan
Reviewer: David Aldridge

The play tells the story of a middle class suburban family, Bob and Barbara Jackson and their daughter Julie, who are put upon by a grey-coated intelligence officer (Stewart). He needs them to help him spy on their neighbours, the Krogers, who are also their old friends. Barbara especially finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the deception which this service to her country requires.

The action is introduced by David Morley Hale, standing in for Ray Marsden who has been “suddenly indisposed.” As the “civil servant” Stewart, he assured us, speaking above the sound of a relentlessly buzzing PA, that the events we were about to see were “by the way, by and large, true.” In my experience, that serves as a kind of coded warning that the events that we are about to witness are by the way, by and large, dull as ditchwater. I hoped to be pleasantly surprised. Despite the early sound problems which were largely resolved by the interval, I was impressed by the set, the interior of a suburban home in the early sixties.

I should say at this point that this is a difficult performance to review. Although I know that Marsden was also unable to make the previous Wimbledon run of the play, Morley Hale did not seem to have had much time to learn his part. He did a decent job for the first half an hour or so, but after a while I realised that he was reading from the notebook his character was carrying. His performance was therefore unconvincing and – to be honest – so were the other actors in the scenes they shared with him. It is difficult to know whether this shortage of chemistry resulted simply from a lack of rehearsal time with Morley Hale or whether the play was simply falling flat. There were certainly more than the usual number of dropped lines and false starts from the rest of the cast. The cynic in me wonders as to the cause of Marsden’s failure to appear.

Lorna Luft (Helen Kroger) is something of a disappointment. Her lines are simply delivered and one doesn’t really get a sense of her eccentric character, or why her neighbours love her so dearly. Although she has top billing (she is, after all, the one that’s not Liza Minelli…), the Krogers are not actually on stage all that much. In fact, much of the tension of the play relies on us thinking that they could come to the door at any inopportune moment. When this does happen, it’s not used to its full advantage; the high dramatic opportunity of the piece is over rather quickly and is quite unsatisfying.

Jenny Seagrove (Barbara Jackson) labours valiantly to hold the piece together. On reflection having seen the play, I realise that her character was deteriorating physically throughout, but a combination of my being slow to catch on and her perhaps over-playing this from the start meant that I suspected that Seagrove was possibly going down with whatever had kept Ray Marsden away that evening. More importantly, the style of Hugh Whitemore’s writing doesn’t really allow her to pick up much steam. The action is constantly interrupted by monologues addressed to the audience where the characters share with us the benefit of their hindsight. Barbara’s fate is alluded to in these monologues but not really signposted in the action of the play, so when it was revealed I felt cheated.

The tagline of the play is that suspicion can be a killer, and all that I can say is that there aren’t any real killers in this piece; more’s the pity, as that would have given Jenny Seagrove something to get believably disturbed about. She is constantly reassured by Stewart that her neighbours are no danger to her or her family, and this banal tale of urban spying really provides us with nothing more to worry about than Barbara’s friendship with her next door neighbours. It takes more than a liberal sprinkling of sinister lighting and music to suggest a fatal descent into anxiety, but we just aren’t given anything else. If I have spoilt the denouement for you, never mind. Go and see something else instead.
frontpage hit counter