A good spy thriller is just what you want to curl up with on a cold winter’s evening. Hapgood doesn’t provide many chills in this unseasonably mild December, but it’s a very enjoyable evening nonetheless. The eponymous Hapgood (Mrs, an adopted title) runs a team of spies, some of whom may or may not be working for the Russians. So far, so good. Except, this is a Tom Stoppard play, and a game of whack-a-mole doesn’t contain nearly enough convolutions to satisfy his quick mind.
We get all of the elements of a spy thriller, mixed in with a hefty dose of particle physics, maths, linguistics, the intricacies of prep school etiquette, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, colliding electrons and so on, until the fiercest of concentration is needed to follow the plottings and double-crossings. Did I say double-crossings? At one point, Alec Newman’s Kerner, a Russian spy turned double-agent turned who-knows-what, tries to remember for himself whether he’s now a triple-agent or a quadruple.
That said, concentration does offer rewards. Sparks of recognition, guessing and re-guessing are half the fun, after all. Stoppard adds some amusing meta touches, as Kerner muses that spy novels are irritating because “if the author knows [who did it], it’s rude not to tell”. As far as his scientific mind is concerned, the game is in proving what you hypothesise, not in working out who might be a traitor. This game, though, masks deeper discussions about science, about trust, about human nature – “you get what you interrogate for” – and about love.
An illegitimate child, illicit affairs galore (well, all that adrenaline…) and a mole to catch should make for a tense evening, but Howard Davies’ production often feels as though it doesn’t take the spy part seriously enough to induce tension. Stoppard’s script enjoys its in-jokes and asides so much that the plot (Kidnap! Traitors! Gun!) seems almost secondary. It’s very funny in parts, mixing up the mysteries of prep school homework, overfed hamsters and lost keys into the potentially life-and-death work of the spies, and the CIA getting involved (in the form of Gary Beadle’s impatient Wates) only complicates things further.
Briefcases feature heavily, especially in a funny opening scene in the changing rooms of a swimming pool – there is much swapping, mixing-up and confusion. Designer Ashley Martin-Davis has done a wonderful job of creating the clever, multi-purpose set, with seamless transitions from changing rooms to rugby pitch to office aided by Ian William Galloway’s ingenious video work.
Stoppard is never afraid to tackle big, complex themes, and in Hapgood, Kerner’s scientific work is of as much interest as what’s in the briefcase he gives to the Russians. Stoppard simply revels in language, and his dialogue zings around Hampstead Theatre in a truly joyful way. Add in a positively Shakespearian number of twins, and the plot becomes even sillier – and funnier. Lisa Dillon is superb as Hapgood, all cut-glass vowels and no-nonsense bravado, nicely paired with more emotional moments. Newman is excellent as a rumpled, conflicted Kerner, and Tim McMullan seems to be having huge fun as a supercilious, rule-following Blair.
So, if some of the twists and turns feel more like gentle meanders, and if the second half drags a little, all is forgiven for the sake of Stoppard’s script, delivered with such verve by the superb cast. Hapgood may not be in a great hurry to get anywhere, but when the journey’s this interesting and well-acted, who cares?