‘The Haystack’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
The Haystack, Hampstead Theatre, 2020
Photograph: Ellie Kurttz Rona Morison (Cora) and Lucy Black (Denise)

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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A GCHQ analyst meddles in the life of the woman he’s spying on in this teatime drama-y debut from Al Blyth

Al Blyth’s first full-length play takes aim at the UK surveillance state. ‘The Haystack’ starts off like a 2010 episode of ‘Spooks’ and ends the first half like a creepy Richard Curtis romcom before, thankfully, pulling back into sharper territory just in time for the finale.

GCHQ analysts Neil and Zef are pulled into a project to uncover who has been leaking embarrassing governmental secrets about arms deals to Guardian blogger Cora Preece. They do too good a job. Cora’s contact, a Saudi princess in fear of her ex-husband, ends up dead in suspicious circumstances. As Cora spirals in the aftermath, Neil keeps monitoring her through her phone and laptop. When it looks as though she’s going to end her life, he breaks every rule of surveillance and meets her under a made-up name.

Blyth has characters giving speeches about the loneliness of our digital age and there’s some pointed commentary on the structurally racist assumptions underlying the computer programmes used to detect potential terrorists (searching the proverbial haystack of British society). But all the modern terminology is really window-dressing for an older genre of ‘spy falls in love with target’, mixed in with that dramatic staple of thrillers, paranoia about state intrusion into our lives.

From no-nonsense GCHQ boss Hannah to nerdy Neil and Enyi Okoronkwo’s perma-horny, computer-game-obsessed Zef, the characters leap straight out of a very familiar playbook. Their dialogue, too. (Okoronkwo has to say ‘spank-bank’ more times on stage than anyone should.) Blown-up text exchanges, cam footage, internet searches and pixels are projected on to the moving walls of designer Tom Piper’s set in Hampstead Theatre’s main space.

There’s enough material and evident research here, pushing and pulling in different directions, for two plays. Nevertheless, there’s something enjoyably ‘9pm, BBC Two’ about director Roxana Silbert’s production – particularly in the twisty-turny final scenes, which steer into suspicion, tragedy and double-bluff with a hearty embrace.

The second half deliberately undercuts the cutesiness of the end of the first, as Neil is confronted with the fundamental abusiveness of his behaviour in using his knowledge of Cora to start a relationship with her. And yet… Blyth doesn’t quite nail the tempo and balance sufficiently to not make it feel as though the play is still rigged in Neil’s favour. Rona Morison’s raw performance as Cora creates space that isn’t always there on the page, but she’s still compressed into snapshots, while Oliver Johnstone’s Neil – who leans heavily into haplessly adorkable – never feels as ruthlessly interrogated by the script as he should.

By: Tom Wicker

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