Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene, adapted for the stage by Clive Francis
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

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This is a production which is trying so hard to be loved you begin to warm to it in spite of yourself. The cast work their socks off with constant high-speed entrances and exits and changes of clothing and characters. They are never still for an instant – and neither is the scenery nor the props. Within the first six minutes they had progressed from vacuum-cleaner sales premises, to a bank, to Sloppy Joe’s bar with appropriate set and costume changes to suit. There may have been more – I lost track!

Shakespeare’s “they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts” could have been written for this show with the four actors taking on almost a dozen parts – each! Due to the indisposition of Russell Boulter (nervous exhaustion I shouldn’t wonder) his place was taken by Hywel Morgan who made a very good job of it, changing each of his eleven characters at the drop of a hat – or at least a change of same – and did so very convincingly. Perhaps his Captain Segura could have been more sinister and menacing – but he was a very good Queen.

Greene’s best selling novel was a most implausible, farcical story, poking fun at the gullibility and paranoia of the British Secret Service during a cold war, but told with dry satirical humour. It was made into a very successful film, starring Alec Guinness, in 1959.

Set in nineteen fifties Cuba, vacuum salesman Wormold is desperately in need of money – his spoilt teenage daughter has become very extravagant – and when approached by Hawthorne from the British Secret Service he is persuaded to become agent 59200 (Greene’s own number when he worked for MI6). He files imaginative reports, sending in drawings of vacuum-cleaner parts re-invented as military installations and ‘recruiting’ fictitious new agents from names on the Country Club list. Things go badly wrong when the enemy believes his stories and ‘agents’ begin to die.

In this production Greene’s dry, satirical humour is lost without trace, while the farcical elements of the improbable story have been exploited to the full, the comedy being rather overplayed. In the original novel Wormold was coerced into becoming a spy while in a public toilet – but did he have to be sitting on a lavatory centre stage with his trousers around his ankles, while the coercer chases a recalcitrant toilet roll across the floor? Here much play is made with the turning on and off of invisible taps with the sound of rushing of water each time. The timing of sound effects is spot-on throughout the whole performance, and director Richard Baron keeps the action moving at a frantic pace with the actors not only frequently changing characters but each in turn narrating the story, while rushing on and off and pushing furniture about.

Simon Shepherd is Wormold, with Clive Francis and Kelly Adams (along with Morgan) expertly and convincingly – and sometimes slightly breathlessly - providing all the other characters.

This is the very first staging of Greene’s popular novel and it will be interesting to watch how it progresses. Hopefully the pace will slow a little (which could only be a relief for the cast) and the quirky comedic moments will not be over-repeated or over-emphasised.

Touring to Bromley and Windsor.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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