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Ciphers review at Everyman Theatre Cheltenham

This Out of Joint production of Dawn King’s new play sees her reunited with Blanche McIntyre, who directed the award-winning Foxfinder. Where that earlier play had a fable-like quality, an unsettling air of the dystopian, this is a more grounded affair, structured like a thriller.

Ciphers concerns the mysterious death of a secret agent and the attempts of the woman’s sister to uncover exactly how she died. King is interested in the fluidity of identity, especially when a life is lived undercover, and McIntyre’s production enhances this, with Grainne Keenan playing both of the sisters, the enigmatic security services operative, Justine, and the more forthright art gallery manager, Kerry.

The rest of the cast, tellingly, also take on double roles and the play intertwines Justine’s increasingly perilous professional life of secrets and lies with her adulterous affair with an artist. But though this is thematically rich ground, it feels like there are dramatic avenues left unexplored; the play’s fragmented structure is elegant and the contradictions in Justine’s character are potentially fascinating – the way in which her apparent averageness makes her so well suited to life as a double agent – yet the relationship between her and her lover, Kai, never entirely convinces, nor does a big narrative twist towards the end of the play. James Perkins’ set, with its shifting screens, allows the plot to flick seamlessly through time, switching from one plot strand to another, but there’s a curiously clinical feeling to some of the scenes which means it never quite grips as much as it might.

Production Information

Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, October 22-26, then touring until February 15

Dawn King
Blanche McIntyre
Out of Joint, Bush Theatre, Exeter Northcott
Grainne Keenan, Ronny Jhutti, Bruce Alexander, Shereen Martin
Running time

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