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The Haystack by Al Blyth at Hampstead Theatre | Review

Enyi Okoronkwo (Zef) in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre. Photo credit Ellie Kurttz.
Enyi Okoronkwo (Zef) in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre. Photo credit Ellie Kurttz.

There’s a YouTube video out there called ‘Mark Zuckerberg explains the internet to Congress’, which is exactly what it says – I find it mildly amusing. But Hannah Barker (Sarah Woodward) – ‘Ma’am’ to her young technological specialist recruits, Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) and Neil (Oliver Johnstone) – is not nearly as clueless as the senators in Washington. Barker introduces herself, slightly abruptly, as ‘Deputy Director, CTD’ – and it is assumed that Zef and Neil understand what is meant by ‘CTD’. The Haystack is largely set in Cheltenham – GCHQ to be precise, where there is a need to gather intelligence on terrorist activity.

Their current strategy, as far as the play is concerned, isn’t exactly perfect, as recent attacks on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge have demonstrated (and, indeed, one in Streatham whilst this show was in previews). So, it is for the brainboxes to come up with a superior alternative to the status quo, whatever precise form that may take. “When an attack can emerge from anywhere, we need to monitor everyone,” Barker tells the audience directly. And that isn’t the only chilling moment in the play, which drew audible gasps on more than one occasion from the audience, with justification.

There’s Denise (Lucy Black), the home affairs editor at The Guardian. One of her direct reports is Cora Preece (Rona Morison), an up and coming journalist who has had some conversations with Ameera Al-Mansur (Sirine Saba), a divorced Saudi Arabian princess who is seeking political asylum in the UK for reasons that become clear to those seeing the play. She has, it would appear, some evidence to back her assertions about the Saudi royal family.

Elements of the storyline are nothing new, particularly when the ‘professional’ is mixed with the ‘personal’ and for one of the techies, there’s an inability to let go and let live even when under orders to move on to the next project. The consequences, given the unprecedented access to huge amounts of personal data about whoever is under surveillance, are perhaps inevitably significant, even catastrophic, but events are nonetheless compelling to witness in this engaging and briskly paced production.

It’s two hours and forty-five minutes long, but the good news is that it felt considerably less than that. Some excellent use of video technology ensures the audience can see what it is that characters are showing one another on their screens. Not every projection is as clear as it could have been, however, perhaps indicative of the fuzzy nature of information gathering. But for all the direct messaging, coding and technological wizardry, it’s the use of still images of GCHQ officials taken by their own hand that proved to be the most harrowing.

Had the production not been quite so engaging I might have kept a tally of how many times the term ‘spank bank’ (don’t ask) was used. The sheer amount of data at the fingertips of GCHQ staff is rather staggering – even to them. I don’t mean to be sensationalist, but taking this production’s assertions to a logical conclusion, you are reading this review on a device that has the potential to be remotely monitored for the purposes of counterterrorism.

This is evidently a well-researched play, and one that provides a decent amount of food for thought: what, for instance, is an appropriate balance between monitoring what is going on out there in the name of public safety and security and, well, intrusive snooping? Some complex issues, not all involving sitting in front of a computer coding and hacking away, are explored in this gripping and absorbing show.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Neil and Zef are two twenty-something computer whizzes with questionable dress sense and a highly developed interest in video games and Netflix. They’re also the UK’s ‘National Defence Information Security Team’ – recruited by GCHQ for their sky-high IQs and ability to work quickly and discreetly, no questions asked.

With unfettered access to the world’s data and infinite powers of electronic intrusion, these unlikely agents are essential cogs in the national security machine. But when their window onto intelligence operations shows them more than they were meant to see, they begin to question their roles in a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not…

The Haystack is Blyth’s first full-length play and Roxana Silbert makes her directing debut as Hampstead Theatre’s Artistic Director.

The cast includes Lucy Black as Denise, Oliver Johnstone as Neil, Rona Morison as Cora, Enyi Okoronkwo as Zef and Sarah Woodward as Hannah.

A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE WORLD PREMIERE
THE HAYSTACK
BY AL BLYTH
DIRECTED BY ROXANA SILBERT
Running time: 2 HOURS AND 45 MINUTES INCLUDING AN INTERVAL
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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