Our Man In Havana
PITLOCHRY FESTIVAL THEATRE
Until November 14
SEEN AT BRUNTON THEATRE, MUSSELBURGH
Touring until December 9
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Three years ago Richard Baron directed Patrick Barlow’s acclaimed stage adaptation of John Buchan’s novel The 39 Steps for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was an ambitious, enjoyable, but ultimately insufficiently speedy production.
Undeterred, he’s back on similar territory with this staging of Clive Francis’s version of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man In Havana.
Like Barlow’s play, Francis’s drama is a ripping yarn of espionage played out as theatrical farce. The comedy of both plays relies to a considerable degree on the playing of multiple characters by a small cast.
However, if Baron’s 39 Steps never quite got into top gear, his latest offering is decidedly lacking in pace. This has a lot to do with Francis’s adaptation.
Episodic novels are notoriously difficult to transfer to the stage. This is particularly true of Greene’s tale of Wormold, the hapless vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited by British intelligence in post-war Cuba during the rule of right-wing dictator Batista.
Much as Francis tries to make the need for narration seem part of the joke, he seems to be struggling to make a virtue out of a necessity.
Andrew Loudon gives very genteel, English expression to the ludicrous lies Wormold tells in order to extort expenses payments from the British exchequer. Meanwhile, his fellow cast members Roger Delves-Broughton, Steven McNicoll and the aptly-named Jessica Guise play an array of characters, from Wormold’s “handler” Hawthorne and his precocious teenage daughter Milly to the assorted violent cops, pimps and prostitutes of 1950s Havana.
However, despite their best efforts (which include the always excellent McNicoll as an Irish nun and a dubiously gullible chief of police) the structure of the play frustrates all attempts to give it momentum. Consequently, despite some genuinely funny moments, the piece seems formulaic and lacklustre.
There is also something of a formula to David Gooderson’s Hector, the tale of Sir Hector MacDonald, the Scottish Major General knighted by Queen Victoria. Well-researched and committed to restoring the reputation of a man considered “disgraced” at the time of his death, by his own hand, in 1903, Gooderson’s play is a straightforward work of biographical theatre.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and director Kate Nelson’s touring production for Eden Court, Comar and Ed Littlewood Productions is a well-acted rendering of a well-made play.
Steven Duffy is on upright, but human, form as “Fighting Mac”, the Highlander who rose through the ranks of the British imperial army to become a general famed for his exploits in Sudan, Afghanistan and South Africa. When in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) MacDonald faces the extreme hostility of a decadent colonial class which is threatened by his military discipline and no-nonsense, Scottish Calvinism.
A strong ensemble creates an excellent sense of the comfortable life of the British imperial upper class in Ceylon. Equally strong is the evocation of a pernicious conspiracy (by the Governor, a prominent businessman and a clergyman) to besmirch the name of the man they deride contemptuously as “the crofter” with concocted stories of homosexual paedophilia.
There is an amount of comic characterisation as the supporting cast members shift between various roles. However, one fails to find the humour in Raj Ghatak’s playing of the Governor’s domestic servant as a slouching caricature.
That said, some neat little touches raise a smile. For example, a cricket score displayed at the Governor’s residence soon reappears as the hymn numbers in a church.
Ultimately, however, the play is a poignant and powerful insight into how MacDonald was brought down, and ultimately killed, by a scandal rooted in snobbery and bigotry.
Hector tours until December 9. For details, visit: edlittlewood.com
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 2, 2015
© Mark Brown