A double debut has taken place with the opening of Cyprus. First, it marks the opening of the new West End studio venue that was originally promised a year ago when the Whitehall Theatre was converted into the Trafalgar Studios, but only the larger space opened then. Now, carved out beneath it in what used to be the rear stalls, is a second cosy, flexible space seating 98, much like the National’s temporary Loft theatre that was created four years ago in the Lyttelton Circle foyer, and is currently arranged in a three-sided configuration that is a bit like a miniature version of the Donmar.
Of course, it’s not quite the West End’s first such studio space – that honour has long belonged to Jermyn Street Theatre, founded over ten years ago, and it was recently joined by the Sound Theatre in Wardour Street – but as handsomely appointed and with Ambassador Theatre Group’s marketing and box office might behind it, this theatre comes with a ready-made management infrastructure.
The other debut is also notable: Paul Arnott’s play is produced by the diminutive Mull Little Theatre (seating capacity: 43) from the Scottish Isle of Mull, and this marks their first appearance in London. But it turns out to be somewhat less auspicious. In a psychological political thriller that strives for topicality but feels very much like it is cynically appropriating recent headlines to achieve it, it is probably the West End’s first 7/7 play: but instead of capitalising on the intrinsic fear of what brought terrorist bombs to the transport system in London, it has made me mainly fear for what other kind of plays we may have yet to come on this subject.
Here, in a play that begins around July 5 of this year (when the characters wake up the next day, the front page of the copy of The Times has the news that London will host the Olympics blazoned across it), a spy thriller unfolds between two ex-colleagues and the daughter of one of them (who was, it turns out, the one-time lover of the other). The action usefully links where we are sitting now (in Whitehall, where they are reunited in a ‘chance’ meeting) with Mull (where this play originated), where they are sitting now. “David Kelly killed himself – do you want me to spell it out?”, someone says, and of course that’s long been spelt out here in the story of the retired government spy who has become an opponent of the war on terror and is now suspected of ‘leaking’.
As directed by the playwright, a certain tension is maintained in the interactions between the three participants here, though it’s mainly the plot that is leaking. Aladair McCrone (who is artistic director of Mull Theatre) himself plays the improbable one-time protégée of Sandy Neilson’s spy Brian Traquair, with Beth Marshall as Traquair's 37-year-old daughter. They work hard, but the play ultimately defeats their efforts.