Dawn King's Foxfinder was a gem of a play which deserved a bigger audience than it got at its brief run at the Finborough in 2011. Her new play Ciphers displays many of the same intense qualities, notably an ability to generate tension and keep the audience guessing without explaining too much. But as a spy thriller it is less original in its theme, and to my mind much less rewarding.
Blanche McIntyre, who also directed Foxfinder, brings the same sharp touch to this production at the Bush theatre, whiled the set design by James Perkins is sparse and minimal. Sliding panels move across the stage, alternately revealing and hiding what is going on. Each of the four actors plays two parts, with the hardest task falling to Grainne Keenan, who plays Justine, a recruit to British intelligence, and her sister Kerry, who is trying to investigate Justine's mysterious death. Was it suicide or murder?
Structurally, the play begins with Justine's recruitment but then jumps around in short scenes, some of which are flashbacks. Keenan shifts in seconds from her role as the demure Justine to turn into the leather-jacketed, chain-smoking Kerry. The doubling works, but I found myself adrift a couple of times and not entirely sure which sister I was watching. I was also a little confused by the time shifts. King shows Justine learning her trade as an intelligence officer by manipulating a confused young Moslem into spying on his radical friends. But the disappearance of Kareem (Ronny Jhutti) is only one of the disasters awaiting this rookie MI5 officer. She also has an affair with a married artist and allows herself to be seduced in double quick time by a Russian diplomat who quickly discovers that his new Russian-speaking assistant is working for British intelligence.
There's one plot line too many here, and it's the diplomat (Bruce Alexander) who strains credulity, despite speaking many of his lines in Russian. The idea that the Russian embassy would allow MI5 to penetrate its offices in this way has no plausibility at all in the real world. Believability in the theatre is easy to create, but also easy to destroy.
Though the acting is uniformly excellent, with Shereen Martin outstanding as in the twin roles of the cool MI5 boss Sunita and the wife of the artist with whom Justine has an affair, I just could not believe in the story, particularly not the ending. TV spy drama (which I suspect Dawn King may have spent too much time watching) has a licence to play around with far-fetched preposterous plot lines. But to spring a daft revelation on the audience (OMG she-was-working-for-North-Korea-all-along!!!) is much easier on TV because it employs the whole apparatus of gritty realism that comes with filming. Theatre is by comparison very minimalist, and relies more on characters revealing themselves in depth.
The story of Foxfinder was also preposterous, but I happily suspended my disbelief and swallowed it totally. The fact that I couldn't buy into the story of Ciphers in the same way doesn't mean that Dawn King is not a highly talented writer. But I think her choice of a spy thriller as a genre may have been a mistake.