Hapgood, Hampstead Theatre, review: ‘A slick, gripping revival’

Lisa Dillon in Hapgood. Picture: Alastair Muir

Lisa Dillon in Hapgood. Picture: Alastair Muir - Credit: Alastair Muir

Stoppard’s least performed play has a difficult reputation but Howard Davies’ masterful production brings clarity to a heady mix of physics and espionage, says Marianka Swain.

Almost 30 years after its frostily received premiere, Stoppard’s spy drama has come in from the cold. Howard Davies’ slick Hampstead revival brings clarity to the initially bewildering combination of physics, philosophy and postmodern Le Carré romp, creating a production that works equally as self-deconstructing pastiche and engrossing, cinematic thriller.

We begin with a surveillance op gone wrong. The suspicious CIA observe the British spooks, whose Soviet double agent may have switched back to the other side. Or is there a mole in their own back garden? Stoppard illustrates boyish glee in the staples of spy fiction, as well as acknowledging its absurdities via Russian physicist Joe – both his actual name and the slang term for asset.

He’s one of two Joes, the second being the young son of Elizabeth Hapgood, the female intelligence chief who, in 1988, preceded Stella Rimington and Judi Dench’s M. Duality fuels the play, from twins and doublespeak to matter/antimatter, truth/lies and personal/professional. Stoppard’s contention that we all hold a mass of contradictions honours the moral ambiguity championed by Le Carré.

Added to that is a welcome emotional dimension, with Lisa Dillon’s fearsomely intelligent, multitasking single mum (also “Mother” to her team) producing glimpses of a chaotic, achingly vulnerable private life.

There’s poignancy, too, in the futility of their actions, fighting to protect possibly meaningless research at the tail end of a dwindling Cold War.

Alec Newman passionately conveys Stoppard’s scientific analogies, though they sometimes stall the action, while Tim McMullan is a wonderfully dry British spymaster and Gary Beadle his brash American opposite.

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Ian William Galloway’s video design adds contemporary paranoia to Ashley Martin-Davis’s elegant sets, as well as emphasising Stoppard’s preoccupation with performance and perception, whether in espionage, theatre or our own intimate encounters.

Rating: 4/5 stars