Our Man In Havana
Forge – The Vaults
Reviewed – 5th March 2020
“Spies Like Us can count on a loyal following for this, and future, productions”
Spies Like Us’ adaptation of Graham Greene’s acclaimed satirical novel is a sixty minute romp of intense physical acting that relies on split second timing, and intricate choreography. The cast of five, three men and two women, take on a variety of roles that include vacuum cleaner salesmen, country club daughters, British intelligence agents, Cuban secret policemen, airplane pilots, cabaret dancers, and mysterious German doctors. They also create planes, cars, horses—and do a lot of dancing. It’s a dazzling display of all the things humans can imitate with their bodies, assisted by various bits of a vacuum cleaner. It’s funny, as well.
If you haven’t read the novel (or seen the film starring Alec Guinness) the plot goes something like this. Vacuum cleaner salesman Jim Wormold, beset by money worries that only the parent of a teenage daughter can appreciate, agrees to work for British Intelligence as a way of earning extra money. Tasked with building a network of spies, and clueless about the actual work involved, Wormold decides to invent his network, and fake the intelligence reports. Events take a strange turn, however, when his imaginary agents are confused with real people. Soon Wormold is running around Havana trying to save their lives, assisted by the lovely Beatrice—who has been sent by his handlers in Whitehall to keep an eye on him.
Spies Like Us is a young company, formed of recent university graduates and the Young Pleasance theatre company. They cut their performing teeth at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the Pleasance. The VAULT Festival is exactly the right place for their blend of energy and inventiveness. For Our Man in Havana, they don’t need sets, or costumes. The performers are all dressed in tan trousers and white shirts, and the only props on stage are a hat, an open suitcase and a vacuum cleaner (of course.) Director Ollie Norton Smith keeps the whole thing spinning along, and the pace barely falters throughout. He has also done a nice job of adapting Greene’s novel (assisted by Hamish Lloyd Barnes). Alex Holley plays Wormold with just the right amount of sweaty bewilderment, and Hamish Lloyd Barnes is his likeable, but bumbling British Intelligence recruiter. Tullio Campanale brings off a double act as Wormold’s friend Dr. Hasselbacker and the sinister chief of police, Captain Segura.
All in all, this is a delightful show, and if some of the fast paced choreography lacks the slick production values of a West End musical, it doesn’t matter. Spies Like Us can count on a loyal following for this, and future, productions.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Murder on the Dancefloor
Reviewed – 12th October 2019
“this is a night of great music, played loud, and more clever physical dexterity than you can shake a stick at”
You could argue that not enough is made of the slough of oddness into which university leavers find themselves plunged on graduation. Returning, in many cases, to parental homes and familiar faces who have both not changed and changed very, very much is bound to be unsettling. First world problem it may be (and that does make it a little hard to feel too sorry for Murder on the Dancefloor’s main characters), but certainly one that invokes some flux, and it’s this that this production makes a focus – with a sinister outcome.
We meet the graduates back in their home city, convening around pub quiz machines to swap notes on jobhunting. Ollie Norton-Smith’s script rattles along at such a quickfire pace that it’s sometimes hard to keep up, and occasionally, as the plot unfolds, important twists and turns can be easily missed. The thrust is clear, though; Sabrina, played with great vigour by Phoebe Campbell, is all at sea, back at home in dead-end jobs and living with her hated brother and lecturing dad (Tullio Campanale, who is a quiet hero of the piece here, turning his hand to his two roles with alacrity). Just how lost these post-uni souls are is clear; on noting that it’s sad not to know what happens next, Sabrina tells her friend that it’s a job, a home, a future. ‘But that’s on us’, Bonnie (Francesa Thompson) reflects mournfully.
The choreography of this piece is extraordinary, especially in the tight space of the Pleasance and with audiences wrapped around on three sides – although more could be done to keep sightlines clear for folks sat at left and right. The cast’s running, dancing, flowing around the stage is positively mercurial; props to Zak Nemorin’s dance choreography. The physicality is commendable, and surely absolutely exhausting, but it risks becoming repetitive and the snappy run time here feels right, if nudging towards overlong for what turns out to be a slightly flimsy plot.
Murder on the Dancefloor is billed as a black comedy, and there is the odd laugh, but that doesn’t feel like it quite cuts it as a description. The script isn’t quite funny enough to call this a true comic piece, and lacks the emotional depth to make for truly powerful physical theatre. It’s a shame this falls between two stalls, as there’s much to recommend the night. All the acting and movement on display is impressive, with some clever moments of direction from Ollie Norton-Smith; a scene where Sabrina reminisces over an old photo album is especially neat. And the soundtrack is such a presence as to feel like it’s another character on stage; a Spotify playlist must surely follow.
This is a cast brimming with talent, executing some really notable choreography. Ultimately, their performances are undermined by a flawed narrative, with the closing plot twist so damn silly as to make a bit of a mockery of any moments of emotional heft that preceded it. That said: this is a night of great music, played loud, and more clever physical dexterity than you can shake a stick at. And there’s a lot to be said for that.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Murder on the Dancefloor
Pleasance Theatre until 13th October
Previously reviewed at this venue: