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Hapgood (Birmingham & Leeds)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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At first Tom Stoppard's 1988 play Hapgood seems dated with its Cold War-era spies and clandestine meetings in Regent's Park. The first scene takes place in a swimming bath's changing room, involving multiple information drops with enough ins-and-outs of cubicle doors to serve a classic farce well.

However, Stoppard's play remains mesmerizing in Rachel Kavanaugh's revival as complicated issues of identity and the morality of the spy trade are explored. Sexual politics are also present, in the guise of the title character Hapgood, but little explored.

Josie Lawrence plays the title character, a single mother running an MI5-type department. "Hapgood is her name, 'Mrs.' is a courtesy title," states one character enigmatically. She is suspected by the CIA of being a double agent, but Hapgood's civil servant superior, Blair (Christopher Ettridge), thinks differently. Hapgood suspects an underling but is herself leading a different type of double life, the father of her son a mystery until halfway through the play.

The main themes of Stoppard's play are honesty, trust and the function of espionage in the Cold War world. The script crackles with twists and turns as twins and double agents abound (or do they?). The audience is kept guessing if the theoretical twins really exist or who is the double agent (and is there more than one?). Lawrence herself gives a lovely rendition of Hapgood's twin sister, the seeming antithesis of Hapgood (or is she?).

Colin Richmond's design is simple and creates environments with moveable furniture, with the occasional visual humour complimenting Stoppard's word-play. Regent's Park is symbolically depicted with a bench, a rubbish bin and a portion of a giraffe's neck visible through a sky blue rectangle in the back wall.

Kavanaugh's directorial touch sometimes leans too far toward farce, no doubt taking the cue from the opening scene. Catherine Jayes's incidental music is Pink Panther-esque in places, highlighting the spy spoofery present in the opening scene. This, along with the light-hearted manner of other production elements, sometimes defuses the ruthless elements of the play. Spy spoofs are great entertainment, but Stoppard's play is multi-layered enough for the production to show more of the life-and-death element of espionage along with the text's humour.

The cast, however, never fall into the trap that Kavanagh inadvertently set for them and none of them strive for laughs. The delivery of Stoppard's verbal banter and word play is often superb, the laughs coming organically through the lines. This is to their great credit as being upstaged by a giraffe's neck could have led to some imbalance. Despite the out-of-fashion Cold War spy milieu, this revival of Stoppard's play is well worth a re-visit.

- Jami Rogers


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