The Stirling Players
Stirling Community Theatre
Until 06 Oct 2018

Review by Sarah Westgarth

The spy thriller is a genre that is ripe for parody, with its recognisable tropes and possibility for a variety of archetypal characters. “Our Man in Havana” was first published as a novel in 1958, written by Graham Green who based the book on his own experiences working for MI6. Adapted into this stage version in 2008, the story pokes fun at the work of intelligence agencies. It is clear from the opening few minutes that the source material originally took the form of prose, as the ensemble cast introduce the show with metaphor-laden description of the setting and central character Mr James Wormold, a British vacuum cleaner salesman who has been living in Havana with his teenage daughter for fifteen years. The narration is clunky, difficult to understand, and largely unnecessary; it appears that the scriptwriter Clive Francis has attempted to preserve some of the wordplay and description of the original text. As “Our Man in Havana” continues, this idea never really lets up. While there are few good jokes, some clever bits of physical comedy, and a solid presence in the leading role, the play ultimately fails to deliver on any big laughs. Director Dave Simms gives the cast and crew a solid foundation and clear vision, but running at over two hours long, it begins to feel more like an improv sketch that has overstayed the promise of its initial premise.

Lee Cook is at the centre of the piece as Wormold, and he is consistent in his characterisation of the bumbling single father who is unwillingly recruited by the British Secret Service to provide them with intel and recruit other locals to do the same. Reluctant to take on what the role requires, yet in desperate need of the money, Wormold ultimately decides to feed his superiors false information and claim fraudulent expenses, hoping they’ll be none the wiser. Cook is believable in his portrayal, his accent is beautiful, and he absolutely looks the part. He provides a strong backbone for the rest of the shenanigans to occur around, but there is a distinct lack of urgency in his performance. Limited urgency is a problem that permeates throughout the show. Even as the stakes get raised, they ultimately never feel real. Ostensibly fast-paced and action packed, the play just drags with no real sense of suspense or peril. The energy feels the same from beginning to end. It takes thirty minutes for the idea of Wormold submitting false reports to reveal itself, and the plot then unfolds in a series of scenes that often lack any narrative point, and sometimes seem entirely disconnected with each other. The objective of the characters at any given moment are often unclear, so it’s hard to get involved in the story.

Perhaps the plot is not really the point though, as the main concept of the show is that every role apart from Wormold is played by one of only five ensemble cast members. There’s no attempt to hide this; changes in character are often limited to a couple of key costume pieces and usually a distinctive accent, and the fourth wall is often broken. The actors play everything from crooked police officers to bartenders to brothel owners; one point, even a lamp. This element is where a lot of the laughs are mined—at one point an actor sighs in exasperation as the narration explains that his character has a Welsh accent—but beyond the gimmick of it, it doesn’t seem to have much point. The cast genuinely look like they’re having a great time, donning huge fake moustaches, blonde wigs and feather boas, and providing many of the sound effects or props needed in a scene. None of it ever really lands as it’s intended to, though, and even with the manic rushing around, the performances themselves are often lacking in energy. For this play to deliver—if there’s a version that does—there’s a strong need for much broader character work that heightens the satirical elements and allows itself to wink at the audience. As it is, the accent work is generally passable at best, and indecipherable and offensive at worst. The actors are game, but few of them manage to make a real impact.

The one standout is Joshua Coldwell, who plays most of the important secondary characters, including an elderly German doctor, Wormold’s recruiter, a suspicious Welshman, and a local stripper. He blends seamlessly into each of these roles, his accent work is impeccable, and it’s easy to forget that these parts are all played by the same actor. He instantly lifts the energy of every scene he appears in, and everything falls even flatter when he is not onstage. His comedic timing is superb, and his physicality—particularly in the role of Dr Hasselbach—is quite extraordinary. Coldwell throws himself completely into every part, no matter how minor, and he seems the most in step with the tone of the script—which, to be fair, is inconsistent.

Clive Francis’ script fails to modernise the story, so much of the dialogue feel very dated. Many of the jokes rely on questionable gender and racial politics, men in drag, and several ‘gay panic’ moments. The black comedy often veers into distasteful, but mostly it just isn’t very funny. The lack of urgency and narrative stakes largely come from a convoluted and strangely paced plot that doesn’t seem entirely sure of exactly what it wants to be. Is it a light-hearted romp, or a far more sinister take-down of international relations? And why is it so LONG?

The technical aspects of the show are strong, with the combination of lighting and set working beautifully for the audience to be completely transported from one scene to the next. There were a few sound effects that were genuinely quite alarming, perhaps too much so, and anyone sensitive to such things should be aware of this. The cast is the stage crew (and sometimes part of the set itself) and they work fluently and flawlessly to keep the show moving. It’s evident how much work has gone into producing a show as demanding as this, and the moments that do work well are largely owed to the enthusiasm of the ensemble.

If you can check some of your expectations and scepticism at the door, “Our Man in Havana” does have some delightful moments, and there is fun to be had in Wormold’s world, even if Clive Francis has a hard time convincing me why I’m there.