First published in The Times, Monday November 2 2015
The last play that Richard Baron directed for Pitlochry Festival Theatre was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which the director stuck faithfully by the playwright’s credo that seriousness should be hidden beneath a “sincere and studied triviality”. Graham Greene’s black comedy about a vacuum-cleaner salesman who becomes embroiled in espionage is quite the opposite of Wilde. Its complex story and “winds of change” setting may lend it an air of import, but Greene’s exploration of the British secret service and their role in Cuba on the eve of revolution is never more than skin deep.
As in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Greene’s The Third Man, the twisting-turning plot and dizzy logic of Our Man in Havana is of secondary importance to the ambience and characters. Clive Francis’s adaptation, first staged in 2007, is remarkably faithful to the source novel, splitting the narration between four actors who dance in and out of multiple roles. From the outset, Baron’s production steeps us in the atmosphere of intrigue, where nothing is quite as it appears on the surface. The ingenious programme is a mock-up of a 1950s broadsheet newspaper complete with peepholes and an advert for Greene’s Atomic Pile vacuum cleaner, which “sucks like a dream”. Designer Ken Harrison’s set is backed by colonial-style floor-to-ceiling wooden shutters that, when opened, reveal snooping paraphernalia.
Pic: Douglas McBride
The relentlessly busy production does capture something of the confusion of the times, and the cast do well to keep up the pace. Andrew Loudon is well cast as Wormold, the everyman salesman-turned-spy, who fabricates his reports, inventing weapons of mass destruction from vacuum-cleaner parts, only for his deception to come back and bite him on the seat of his cotton trousers. Jessica Guise, Steven McNicoll and Roger Delves-Broughton are also energetic in a range of roles, with the latter running the gamut from spy recruitment agent to ageing German doctor and even a nude exotic dancer.
Baron’s take on Greene’s comedy is entertaining, even if it occasionally tests the patience, with too many laughs derived from frantic mugging and lines delivered in exaggerated foreign accents. If it all feels a little padded out at times with unnecessary musical and dance interludes, the production is worth seeing for some well-choreographed set pieces, including the trade association lunch, where Wormold evades poisoning through an elaborate switching of dinner plates, and a life-or-death game of draughts, in which the counters are replaced with miniature bottles of Scotch.