Friday, 29 January 2016

Theatre Review: Hapgood

It probably tells you all you need to know about my opinion of the Hampstead Theatre’s production of Hapgood that I'm writing this post less than a week after seeing it and am genuinely struggling to remember much about it.

I mean, if you’re short on time you can stop reading now really. I don’t know about you, but ‘almost completely forgettable’ is not one of the things I’m looking for in a production.

Image source.

Hapgood is a Tom Stoppard play which is ostensibly a whodunnit spy thriller where the British secret service finds a Russian mole in its ranks and works to expose him. Except because it’s a Tom Stoppard play it’s not about that really, it’s actually about particle physics. Obviously.

And here’s the major issue for me. If I’m watching a play where the main narrative device is a spy thriller, then I want a good spy thriller. This is not a good spy thriller. Instead, it’s a setup for many lengthy speeches about particle physics and associated philosophy. I hate it when Stoppard does his ‘I'm interested in this idea so you must hear about it, repeatedly, at length’ thing (see also: The Hard Problem and the fucking prisoner's’ dilemma). Partly because Stoppard and I don’t find the same ideas interesting, partly because I find it makes for very stop-start drama which is always just frustrating. In the case of Hapgood, about a minute into the first lengthy speech (about whether light is a wave or a beam or something similar that I didn't understand) I found myself mentally ranking my favourite Nakd wholefood bars*. The ultimate consequence of the many lengthy speeches was that I pretty much failed to engage with the plot or characters in any meaningful way. Which is kind of a big deal.

Unusually, at least for things I see, this production was also hampered by some distinctly average acting. I had a particular problem with Lisa Dillon in the title role, who I just didn't buy either as spymaster or, particularly, as slightly embarrassing mother of a small boy (though, to be fair, she was much better when pretending to be Hapgood’s wayward, fictional, twin sister). Miscast or just having a bad night, who knows. Few of her castmates faired much better, so at least she had some company.

The redeeming feature of this production is the always excellent Tim McMullen as Hapgood’s boss Blair, who is outstanding as the stuffy, laconic, polished Big Boss. He manages to wring a lot of comedy out of his part as well as the required amount of gravitas and casual malice when necessary. He also manages a quite extraordinarily consistent and unforced Posh accent. I missed him every second that he was off stage. He is, essentially, Ralph Fiennes' version of M in the Bond films, but better and more entertaining. Alec Newman as Russian double agent/Hapgood’s babydaddy Kerner is also pretty good, encumbered as he is by the bulk of the lengthy speeches. His Russian accent was largely bang on and surprisingly non-annoying.

The production also looks very stylish - all clean lines and Cold War grey. The use of doors and walls that recess into the side of the stage to portion off the action is unfussy, ingenious and highly effective. So too is the multiple video screen backdrop, used in lieu of any traditional scenery. I particularly enjoyed the transition from a leisure centre swimming pool to London Zoo because lions are always awesome.

Overall, very much not one for me and I can’t honestly recommend it. Which is a good thing really because its run has now ended.

This post was rather pointless really. Sorry about that.

*1 gingerbread, 2 bakewell tart, 3 orange cocoa

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