Britain’s involvement in wartime espionage is something that never fails to uncover the opportunity for fascinating story and tales of human endeavour. In the days before we knew such things as MI6 or the Secret Service, they were simply a department called S.O.E. or Special Operations Executive. Clair Obscur has taken a fragment of their work with the history of F Section and their work in France.
The play charts the working relationship between Vera Atkins (Deborah Clair), the SOE Intelligence Officer and handler, and Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, aka Nora Baker (Natasha Jayahendry), the spy and wireless operator who operated out of Paris under the codename Madeleine. Through a mixture of messages, covert meetings and letters, Atkins pieces together what has happened to her agent working over the English Channel.
While S.O.E. is undeniably gripping and at times a taut and nail-biting narrative, it takes a while to get fully going, with the opening introduction and briefing scenes feeling more than a little languid and procedural. This is helped by the ready chemistry between Clair and Jayahendry; the interplay between the pair feels fluid and believable between Noor’s more carefree enthusiasm and Vera’s clipped and deliberate RP tones. But there is a warmth and a connection, without which the rest of the piece wouldn't work.
The play gets at its best when the spy story starts to reach its apex as the mission begins to get perilous and allies are disappearing left and right, and it’s during this breakneck race to the finish that the whole really comes together. Although it is worth noting that this is an abridged version of the play, with a final act removed, however that works thematically, refocusing the story on the relationship and themes of duty and sacrifice rather than encumbering this shorter, tighter version with a third actor and an extended runtime.
Ultimately, this is a story of heroism and courage, and a tale told with a lot of heart. Well worth a punt to learn a little more about an undersung part of British spy history.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan