Review: The Haystack, Hampstead Theatre

PUBLISHED: 11:07 11 February 2020

Rona Morison as Cora in The Haystack production photos Hampstead Theatre picture Ellie Kurttz

Rona Morison as Cora in The Haystack production photos Hampstead Theatre picture Ellie Kurttz

Al Blyth makes an assured thought-provoking debut about privacy versus security and the perils of surveillance culture

Sarah Woodward in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre picture: Ellie KurttzSarah Woodward in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre picture: Ellie Kurttz

Al Blyth makes an assured debut with a drama about the perils of surveillance culture and the privacy we have handed over without a quibble.

It paints a mostly plausible story of an investigative Guardian journalist whose Saudi source tips her off about government collusion - arms contracts and bungs for turn-a-blind-eye favours.

Nerdy gamers Neil and Zef are the geeks at GCHQ tasked with finding the leak and running real time surveillance through phones and laptops - whizzily played out across multiple screens on Tom Piper's suitably bland corporate set.

There are fatalities - and one becomes romantically embroiled with his target in a mess of compromise.

Joanne Woodward is their salty no nonsense GCHQ handler who points out that the threat of lone wolf terrorists requires spooks to sift through the entire haystack to keep the country safe 'by any means necessary'.

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But as Zef points out, false positives in algorithms and facial recognition make him - a man of colour, 5,000 times more suspicious than his white colleague.

Blyth picks apart the 'nothing to hide nothing to fear' comfort blanket, exposing how Britain's lack of a constitution allows for extensive spying on its citizens - including perhaps, hacking journalists to discover sources.

He runs it to its queasy, conspiracy theorist extreme, although there's a less credible climax that comes with a jolt, but doesn't feel totally earned.

After five years at the Institute for Fiscal STudies Blyth has a good ear for the repartee between socially awkward techies and Oliver Johnstone makes an endearingly confused Neil, caught between work and his emotions.

Talented Rona Morrison just about manages to make unhinged alcoholic journalist Cora a watchable blend of the spiky and vulnerable, and Hampstead Theatre dierctor Roxana Silbert ably steers a big issue play that is far better when it ditches the screens and focuses on the human drama.

Still it's a confident thought-provoking work that urges us to care much more about what we allow the secret services to do in our name.

3/5 stars

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