The Haystack at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

The Haystack

Hampstead Theatre, 31st January 2020

Al Blyth is not your typical playwright. Having studied Econometrics and Mathematical Economics, (disciplines that spend an inordinate amount of time wishing away the presence of us unpredictable humans), he went on to work as a research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, though the urge to dramatize never left him. Mind you I suspect the encouragement of his missus, Sam Holcroft, also a playwright (Rules for Living), helped. Still heartless policy wonking’s loss is our gain and Mr Blyth’s previous life certainly helped shaped The Haystack, his first full length play.

It is a gripper. Easy to say why HT’s new AD, Roxana Silbert, reserved this for her directing debut in her first season. (In fact she had already encountered Al Blyth’s work from her previous tenure at Plaines Plough). AB is, as we all should be, profoundly concerned about the potential for State overreach in our world, but, rather than serving up a ranting polemic to draw attention to this, he has written a thriller anchored in a love story and buddy banter. The setting is GCHQ, (which probably now knows more about you than you do yourself), where a couple of IT geeks, Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) and Neil (Oliver Johnstone) have been seconded to rustle up some algorithm programmes (or some such) to test the efficacy of the agency’s databases. AB’s point is not that this vast network of information is being used for nefarious purposes, just that the UK, uniquely amongst developed democracies, and thanks to the cobbled together “constitution”, lacks the safeguards to prevent abuse.

We are plunged into the lads’ digital world, brilliantly realised through the kinetic set design of Tom Piper, the lighting of HT regular Rick Fisher, the sound design of the Ringham brothers and the video of Duncan McLean, (a line up more suited to this play is hard to imagine). Gradually it becomes clear to both the no-nonsense boss Hannah (Sarah Woodward) and us the audience that the boys are on to something, but it is when Neil, against Zef’s advice and the rules, starts stalking Cora Preece (Rona Morison) that things really hot up. For bolshie, but somewhat naive, Cora is a Guardian blogger/wannabe journalist, on the rebound from Rob (Oli Higginson), getting her teeth into a story involving Ameera (Sirine Saba), the ex-wife of a really dodgy Saudi businessman type, against the wishes of her seasoned home affairs editor Denise (Lucy Black). Things unsurprisingly turn nasty, as the boys stumble into the story, with much of the story told in flashback or through ingenious use of contiguous conversations (shout to the precise movement mapping of Wayne Parsons).

OK so, even with the pacy direction and invariant dialogue, it does go on a bit, and there are moments of Spooks like cliche, but the twists in the second half, and the multiple issues AB confronts, do ensure we forgive some of the blatancy of the set-up. And Rona Morison, who regular readers will know I have a very high regard for, manages to squeeze out ambiguity in her performance of Cora that simply isn’t there on the page. I can see why some punters might get snide-y about the play, but I was carried along by plot and direction, whilst still thinking about its message.

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