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Hapgood

Tom Stoppard
Birmingham Rep
(2008)

Four years ago Rachel Kavanaugh directed Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at Birmingham Rep and "fell in love with the unique way he weaves together science and art to create such brilliant theatre." Now the Rep's artistic director, Kavanaugh has got to grips with Stoppard's Hapgood, a spy thriller which compares quantum mechanics with international espionage.

It doesn't sound as though it makes a riveting subject for an evening's entertainment. Cynics might say that Kavanaugh brought in Josie Lawrence, remembered by some people more for her nine years on the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? rather than as an award-winning actress, to attract more people to the show. But as with other Stoppard plays, Hapgood works.

You'll probably understand the play more if you have a science background - otherwise there'll be sections during which you're wondering what's going on and whether the dialogue you're hearing is relative to the plot.

And you can't afford to leave your brain at the entrance. Although Stoppard made many changes to the original script before he got it exactly as he wanted, you need no less concentration than for an earlier version in which the writer included an 18-minute explanatory monologue. I heard more than one couple at the interval comparing notes and checking whether they'd taken in everything that was happening.

Hapgood is the story of a spymaster, referred to mostly as Mrs Hapgood or Mother, who has to discover the identity of a traitor passing top-secret scientific information to the Russians. It's intricately written so that you're never sure who's on which side, if the double-crosser is himself being double-crossed and whether double-agents are really triple-agents.

In some ways it's a strange play to revive: written in 1988, it's dated in that some of the language is antiquated - Hapgood herself has a habit of exclaiming "Sugar!" or "Goodness!" when anything goes wrong and at one stage describes her former lover as an "unspeakable cad" - while nowadays Russia doesn't pose the same threat as the old Soviet Union.

But parts of the play, such as the self-examination and sacrifices some of the characters have to make, continue to be relevant.

Josie Lawrence is a fine choice to play the unconventional, clever Hapgood. She's convincingly commanding and tenacious as a boss yet underneath she's vulnerable in her private life which becomes inescapably tangled up with her professional activities. She's great at her job yet she agonises over whether she's not spending enough time with her young, boarding school-educated son.

Christopher Ettridge gives us an understated Blair, Hapgood's boss, who doesn't take any of the limelight away from her, while John Hodgkinson - superb at the Rep last year as Astrov in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya - gives another strong performance as Kerner the Russian.

There's good support from David Birrell as double-agent Ridley; Steve Toussaint as the American, Waites; Ross Armstrong, the loyal servant who's never phased no matter how absurd things are in Hapgood's office; and Paul Westwood, the awkward, dull-witted Merryweather who wouldn't recognise an enemy agent even if he the word spy tattooed on his forehead.

Designer Colin Richmond has done a terrific job, transforming the stage into everything from Hapgood's office to a swimming pool changing room and even a zoo. And full marks to the backstage crew who are exceptionally quick with scene changes.

Hapgood won't be to everyone's taste but Kavanaugh gets the actors to maintain a brisk pace which compensates for the periods in which the play threatens to be overwhelmed by Stoppard's tangential lurch into scientific theory.

And I must admit that despite being a no-hoper at science, I enjoyed it.

"Hapgood" runs at Birmingham Rep until April 26th and at West Yorkshire Playhouse from May 1st to 24th

Reviewer: Steve Orme