It was an inspired idea of the Menier to revive Hugh Whitemore’s gripping play Pack of Lies this year: not only celebrating the life and work of the playwright, who died in July, but also taking heed of the public interest in Russian spies, following the Salisbury poisonings.
This 1983 play, which originally starred Judi Dench and Michael Williams as Bob and Barbara Jackson, persuaded by M15 to allow their house to be used for surveillance on their closest friends, is based on the true story of Peter and Helen Kroger, convicted in 1961 of spying for the USSR.
Whitemore’s use of language, especially in the soliloquies, has not dated at all in the years since the play was written; it is subtle, yet passionate, drawing the audience in so that it really feels involved in the lives of everyone onstage. The fact that everyone watching knows what is going to happen just heightens the tension throughout.
This revival is greatly aided by Hannah Chissick’s subtle, beautifully paced, direction, as well as by Paul Farnsworth’s set and costume designs which are redolent of the period. In fact, the set uses the whole width of the theatre, embracing the street, where the Jackson’s Ford Consul is parked, the living room, stairs, hallway, kitchen and back door, giving a variety of believable spaces in which the action takes place.
Chris Larkin is the embodiment of respectable, home-loving, Bob Jackson, a wonderfully typically British understated portrayal.
Finty Williams, Judi Dench’s daughter, has been imaginatively cast as Barbara: as she slowly comes to believe that her best (and only?) friends, the Krogers are really spies, we see her mentally crumbling away as she reaches breaking point in the knowledge that not only have they betrayed her, she, in turn, has betrayed them. This portrayal is again so British and understated, and all the more believable for that.
Macy Nyman is very successful in portraying the fifteen-year-old daughter, Julie, who treats Barbara almost as a member of the family, calling her ‘Auntie’ and Natalie Walter and Sia Dauda convincing as the two M15 agents.
Helen Kroger is ebulliently played by Tracy-Ann Oberman: the role is so well written that the audience is in two minds whether or not she really is a spy until near the end of the play, and is very sympathetic to her even after the denouement. It is easier to accept her husband, Peter (Alasdair Harvey), might be a spy because he is so self-effacing, quieter and steadier, especially as portrayed here.
The M15 official who ‘persuades’ the Jacksons to let their house be used for surveillance is played very convincingly by Jasper Britton as a two-dimensional civil servant who has great difficulty in empathising with the consequences of what he is asking the Jacksons to do. Like everyone and everything connected with this production, he is so ‘1960s’, whether or not one can remember as far back as that!
This was one of the most enjoyable and moving evenings I have spent in the theatre for a long time. This play really works when directed, designed and acted as it is here. The running time of two hours forty minutes flew by. I have not used the word yet, so I will use it now: SUPERB!
Review by John Groves
The Jacksons are a nice middle-aged English couple. Their best friends are the Krogers, their Canadian neighbours. All is blissful in their world until a detective from Scotland Yard asks to use their house as an observation station to foil a Soviet spy ring operating in the area. They are really put to the test when the detective asks them to help set a trap. Should they betray their friends… Or their country?
Casting for the major revival of Hugh Whitemore’s Pack of Lies.
Hannah Chissick directs Jasper Britton as (Stewart), Sia Dauda (Sally), Alasdair Harvey (Peter Kroger), Chris Larkin (Bob Jackson), Macy Nyman (Julie Jackson), Tracy-Ann Oberman (Helen Kroger), Natalie Walter (Thelma) and Finty Williams (Barbara Jackson).
Listings Information Pack of Lies
Menier Chocolate Factory
Address: 53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU
Press performance: 1 October at 8pm
Dates: 20 September – 17 November 2018