Roxana Silbert became artistic director of Hampstead Theatre eight months ago, but this is the first production she has tackled herself. It’s a smart choice, a tense technological thriller from Al Blyth that raises pertinent questions about the implications of state surveillance.
Neil and Zef are computer geeks who work in a basement somewhere in Cheltenham, writing and hacking code on behalf of GCHQ. When a young Guardian journalist, Cora, gets a huge scoop on a potentially embarrassing story for the government, they’re called on to find out the source. But things soon escalate when Neil takes a special interest in his subject.
The drama takes time to get going, but when it does it grips like a vice. The best exchanges are those between Neil and Cora – with Neil adopting a pseudonym (and matching fake social media identity, natch) to be with her, it becomes a study in dramatic irony as the unnerving truth behind their relationship puts it under increasing strain.
Oliver Johnstone and Rona Morison are highly impressive in the central roles, and their chemistry fizzes. Enyi Okoronkwo captures Zef’s paradoxical mix of creepiness and high-mindedness, while Lucy Black and Sarah Woodward fittingly mirror each other as the conflicted Guardian editor and overbearing GCHQ boss.
Tom Piper’s neatly overlapping design incorporates several large screens, which drop in and out of the action (unfortunately, at one point on press night, onto the set itself). It’s a shame the videos themselves don’t always convince considering the hi-tech subject matter.
There are other niggles – the first half could be tauter, and some of the characterisations lean too heavily on cliché. But considering this is Blyth’s first full-length play it is extremely accomplished, and waves urgent red flags about how quickly good intentions in our ultra-connected age can go very badly wrong. It certainly bodes well for Silbert’s tenure.