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Anna review at the National Theatre, London – ‘slick, stylish, tech-savvy spy thriller’

Phoebe Fox in Anna at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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This is smartly done. Really smartly done. Cooked up by writer Ella Hickson and sound designer brothers Ben and Max Ringham, Anna is a swift spy thriller set during the Cold War that casts its headphone-wearing audience as hawkish voyeurs on a dark, domestic drama. Playing out in real time, in a glass-fronted flat, with the dialogue piped into the audience’s ears via hidden microphones, it’s as slick and stylish as it is technologically savvy.

There are heavy hints of John Le Carré in Hickson’s script. It’s 1968, and we’re in shady East Berlin, eavesdropping on the modish home of Hans Weber and his wife Anna, a picture-perfect couple in the German Democratic Republic. We watch in silence as they prepare for a party to celebrate Hans’ recent promotion, and as that party chillingly unravels at the arrival of his new boss Christian – a powerful Party man whose appearance unsettles Anna. There are multiple volte-faces: nothing, and no-one – absolutely no-one – is as they seem.

It’s a wonderfully plotted play, full of history, mystery and horror, but it’s Natalie Abrahami’s direction and the Ringhams’ superb sound design that drives it. Only Phoebe Fox’s Anna is miked-up: it’s her heavy breath in our ear, her retching noises when she locks herself in the bathroom, her frantic shouts when the lights suddenly go out. We only get snatches of other conversations as she reels through the party from group to group. The staging may look effortlessly naturalistic, with guests milling about aimlessly, but this is as tightly choreographed as a ballet.

Anna at the National Theatre. Photo: Johann Persson

Fox is excellent, descending rapidly but believably from homely cheer to precarious panic as the party progresses. Max Bennett is equally good as Christian – tall and threatening with bright blond hair and a voice that could cut glass. There’s a wonderful moment when Anna hurriedly explains her fears to her husband behind a closed bedroom door, while Bennett’s Christian sits outside, idle but imposing.

The rest of the cast have less to work with – they’re mostly bit-part partygoers in this spy story – but they’re pretty much faultless nonetheless. Paul Bazeley is perfectly cast as Hans, a man simultaneously concerned for his wife and his career prospects, and Diana Quick supplies a profoundly pathetic turn too as Elena, an elderly woman whose husband has been arrested, and who is subsequently shunned by her neighbours.

What’s most satisfying about Anna, though, is not the fine performances, or the twisty plot, or the deft direction. It’s how brilliantly all those elements slot together come the delectable denouement. No spoilers here, but it’s a shocking and cynical final flourish to rival anything created by Le Carré. All that in just over an hour. Oppressive, intense, and impressively intelligent.

Sound designers Ben and Max Ringham: ‘Directors and audiences are more sound-literate now. It’s brilliant’

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An intense, slickly staged, Le Carré-esque spy thriller experienced via headphones