This domestic dramedy based on a real story of Soviet spies living in suburban London creaks something rotten. But by the end, the late Hugh Whitemore’s 1983 hit proves that appearances can indeed be deceptive as it digs down and finds unexpected depths.
Put it this way: for the entire first half I couldn’t fathom how original star Judi Dench had won an Olivier for the role of Barbara Jackson, a mousy housewife whose world is turned upside down one day in 1961 when cooly efficient government agent Stewart (Jasper Britton) informs her and her meek, salaryman husband Bob (Chris Larkin) that their flamboyant Canadian neighbours the Krogers are under investigation.
No shade against the Dench, or indeed, her daughter, Finty Williams, who plays Barbara here with nary a hint of being in mum’s shadow, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot for an actor to get her teeth into. Tracy Oberman is scene-stealingly fabulous as the colossally overbearing Helen Kroger, but that aside the first half feels slightly sub-Ayckbourn, as some meek English folk find themselves increasingly out of their depth as they become caught up in the Cold War.
But the play really blazes into life in the second half as Whitemore starts to seriously look at the toll of all this on Barbara. Williams plays her as a girlish naïf – probably less worldly than her gawky daughter Julie (Macy Nyman) – whose limited world was first blown by meeting the Krogers, then by their treacher, and then by the realisation she doesn’t really care about that, she just wants to not be betraying them.
It is a story about very little people caught up in very big events. But after he’s had a laugh with this, Whitemore’s writing takes on a very real sense of care: the Jacksons are still innocent people, caught up in a war. And though the fourth wall-breaking monologues that each of the four adults get are a touch naff, allowing the Krogers to explain themselves a little is a nice touch, giving them more humanity than the icy Stewart.
Hannah Chissick’s production doesn’t make any particular effort to update the play. Its depiction of early ’60s suburbia – brought to life by Paul Farnsworth’s massive, chintzy set – feels distractingly period piece-y. And while you’re welcome to suggest the Skripal poisonings offer a note of contemporaneity, there aren’t any particularly meaningful parallels, I’d argue.
It’s a dated play: but it’s one with real heart and compassion.