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The Fifth Column (Southwark Playhouse)

Tricia Thorns directs Ernest Hemingway's only full-length stage play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ernest Hemingway's Spanish Civil War-set drama is a tricky beast. Written in 1937 in the same Madrid hotel that the play is set in, the piece is an absorbing, sometimes bewildering blend of counter-espionage, intrigue and war-time romance. It is the writer's only full length stage play and feels very much like a precursor to his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And in an interesting preface to the printed script, Hemingway points out that for the duration of the writing process the Hotel Florida was under constant shell fire. This perhaps goes some way to explaining the wild inconsistencies in tone and characterisation.

While certainly never boring, the play infuriatingly staggers off in several different directions - often almost simultaneously - which leaves the audience scratching their collective heads in bafflement. There is some truly magnificent writing here: the second act scene where Philip the world weary American counter espionage agent - clearly Hemingway by any other name - confesses his twisted love for journalist Dorothy - who also had a real life counterpart in the shape of redoubtable war correspondent Martha Gellhorn - is just beautiful, a triumph of understatedly expressed feeling. There is also some inspired comedy, as in the scene where an increasingly dour maid has to relay messages between Philip and Dorothy in adjoining hotel rooms. Unfortunately, there is also an unappetising whiff of misogyny in the depiction of the female characters, and a stereotypical approach to the writing of Spanish and German characters that sits uneasily with modern day sensibilities. Hemingway's dialogue is frequently stirring and literate, but the piece feels meandering and shapeless, albeit always watchable.

That is not to say that Tricia Thorns' often atmospheric production doesn't contain much to enjoy. Principally there is the acting: Simon Darwen projects an entirely convincing mixture of seediness, toughness and disillusion with an underlying layer of aching vulnerability as the hard-drinking, womanising Philip. Despite being saddled with one of the worst wigs I have ever seen on a leading lady, Alix Dunmore makes something fine and moving out of the not-quite love interest Dorothy. Her worm-turning final scene is as heartbreaking as some of her earlier high comedy moments are delightful: a lovely performance. Despite some horribly cliched writing, Stephen Ventura imbues the on-the-make hotel manager with a touching dignity and is genuinely funny while Catherine Cusack -looking like a young Paola Dionisotti - is brilliantly deadpan as a disapproving maid. Michael Shelford's phlegmatic Head of Counter-Espionage also makes a strong impression.

Alex Marker's versatile hotel room set -evocatively lit by Neil Brinkworth- looks great at first but leaves audience members sitting on the extreme sides looking at empty playing space for uncomfortably long stretches of time. Overall, Thorns' staging struggles to find a unifying pace and tone but, to be fair, that is a problem inherent in the piece itself. It is certainly interesting to encounter this, even if it isn't hard to see why this is only the second UK production in 70 years.

The Fifth Column runs at Southwark Playhouse until 16 April.

Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval