Our Man in Havana

Adapted from the novel by Graham Greene by Clive Francis
Richmond Theatre and touring
(2009)

Production photo

The tried and tested recipe for this enjoyable spy spoof is to take a popular novel that has also been successfully filmed, and send it up with a cast of just four actors playing a shedful of exotic and eccentric characters.

This successful theatre genre first made its mark when the Glasgow Citz, running out of cash, needed a seasonal programme filler that would not cost too much to stage. The result was Giles Havergal’s brilliant four-hander based on Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt, which has delighted provincial playgoers for several years.

Next up, in 2006, was Patrick Barlow’s high-speed take on the Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps, owing little to the John Buchan book, and which soon moved from the West Yorkshire Playhouse (via the Tricycle) to become a West End fixture at the Criterion.

Now comes this adaptation of Greene’s darkly comic spy novel, set in the pre-revolutionary Cuba of Batista and based on his own experiences of working for British Intelligence.

Here, drawing largely on Greene’s screenplay and the Carol Reed film, the stage version by Clive Francis is played at breathtaking speed and with impressive wit and agility.

The one name that links all three of these four-handers is the Scottish director Richard Baron who won acclaim for his national touring revival of Travels With My Aunt and who also directed no less than three UK tours of The 39 Steps.

First seen two years ago at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, his staging of Our Man in Havana is now revived as a Nottingham Playhouse production, no doubt hoping to enjoy a West End transfer. And on the evidence of its Richmond reception, playing to a packed and enthusiastic house, it looks a possibility.

Simon Shepherd repeats his strongly drawn performance as Wormold, a hapless vacuum cleaner salesman, heavily overdrawn at the bank, who accepts an offer to spy for the British secret service, files fictitious reports and quickly discovers ways to supplement his income by recruiting non-existent agents and pocketing their fees and expenses — until things start to turn very nasty.

Norman Pace may be best known as half of a comedy duo with Gareth Hale, but he has also been making a name for himself as a versatile actor, here brilliantly portraying the corrupt and menacing Havana secret police chief, whose downfall only comes after winning a game of alcoholic chequers against Wormold.

With a touch of campery Pace also doubles and quadruples as a Catholic nun, a smarmy American banker, Wormold’s gofer and, most memorably, a swift but amusing impersonation of the Queen.

Fine work also comes from Beth Cordingly playing Wormold’s blonde teenage daughter and a super-efficient secretarial assistant, sent out by London, while with split-second costume changes she creates a dazzling collection of vamps, beach girls and exotic dancers.

But the solid centre of the piece comes with Philip Franks as the British spy chief Hawthorne, a role taken in the movie by the scene-stealing Noël Coward, an effect which Franks effortlessly repeats. But among perhaps another half-dozen roles, he brings winning charm and tenderness to the character of Hasselbacher, a bruised, ageing German with a dubious past, who weaves a poignant spell of mystery and sadness across the evening.

At the end of a swift canter through the first act — and just before the interval — the comic invention seems briefly to flag when all of Wormold’s chickens start to hatch, which is also true of the original book and film.

But Act Two begins with a bang, literally, that sweeps us forward to a triumphant end, fifty-five minutes later, choreographed to the atmospheric sound of an Hispanic troupe singing ‘Guantanamera’, while we suddenly feel the urge to seek out a bar serving Cuban rum daiquiris garnished with crushed ice and lime!

Sheila Connor reviewed this production in Woking

Reviewer: John Thaxter