Spy Plays (London / Budapest and Kompromat)

David Thame
Above the Stag Theatre in association with Em-Lou Productions
Above the Stag Theatre (Studio)
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This double bill premières London / Budapest and reprises the production of Kompromat seen at the Vaults Festival last year. They are macabre fictions that offer explanations for two real life events: the mysterious death of Hungarian émigré and gay novelist Adam de Hegedus in 1955 and the murder of MI6 agent Gareth Williams whose body was found inside a zipped-up holdall in his bath in 2010.

Even though you may know what they lead to, both have a cat and mouse tension between killer and victim as an erotic fantasy turns into something more sinister. With a script that never lets you be entirely sure where it is going, directors Peter Darney and Julie Addy, helped by Jack Wills’s lighting, mix menace with a study of gay vulnerability.

In 1955, the CIA was leading a witch hunt against gays who, following the Burgess-Maclean spy scandal, were thought to be a particular security risk. While in some sophisticated upper-class and bohemian circles sexual preferences may have been tolerated, gays now became even more vulnerable to blackmail and police entrapment.

Adam de Hegedus (who wrote under pen name Rodney Garland) could also have been suspected of espionage. He was an acquaintance of Burgess, knew people from all walks of life through his sex life and high-life contacts in Britain and Hungary. In London / Budapest, Guy Warren-Thomas gives him a pre-war posh accent with a slight foreign edge and an effete bravado that fits well for a homosexual of his class and time. He may like a bit of rough trade and risky masochist games but class confidence perhaps brings belief that it won’t go wrong.

Max Rinehart as Reg, the RAF Leading Aircraftsman he picks up in Jermyn Street Turkish Baths, may seem authentic, not innocent and perhaps a little light-fingered but how did someone of his rank get all the medals whose ribbons are on the chest of his battledress top and shouldn’t he have been wearing a best dress tunic off duty? In a flashback scene, Séan Browne’s official has a fountain pen, not a Biro, for period exactness. So is Reg’s breach of regulations a clue here?

But this isn’t a detective story but more of a thriller and one that hints at the isolation imposed on gay men by living a double life or being shut in the closet.

Kompromat is a Russian word meaning compromising material, especially that which can be used for blackmail or against a political opponent. Thame’s play begins with the character he calls Tom already dead and, irrespective of the reason, his victim needed to be neutralised, it may be Zac, now clearing out the apartment and constantly aware of two men on the street outside, who has been caught in the Kompromat trap.

In a well-handled monologue, interspersed with flashbacks, Max Rinehart’s Zac tells his own story, delivered with open honesty. Seduced by luxury and now trapped in intrigue, he’s become the tool of his controllers: he makes you concerned for his own future.

Guy Warren-Thomas makes Tom much less fey than Adam, though an elegant cross-dresser. He keeps a delicate balance between being frightened and seeing thrills as game play, displaying a touching vulnerability, and is also a most convincing corpse.

In both plays, these actors make an excellent pairing and their playing captures the moment. Watch out whom you take home!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton