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Stuart King

Review: THE HAYSTACK at Hampstead Theatre

The new Artistic Director of Hampstead Theatre Roxana Silbert, marks her directing debut for the house with a scorchingly delivered exposé of our national security eavesdroppers and what happens when their unfettered access to personal data, reveals more than they expect.

Sarah Woodward (Hannah), Oliver Johnstone (Neil) and Enyi Okoronkwo (Zef) in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre. Photo credit Ellie Kurttz Sarah Woodward (Hannah), Oliver Johnstone (Neil) and Enyi Okoronkwo (Zef) in The Haystack at Hampstead Theatre. Photo credit Ellie Kurttz.

Neil and Zef (Oliver Johnstone and Enyi Okoronkwo who gamely manage to avoid most of the nerdy clichés), are two uber intelligent cyber technology geeks, recruited by GCHQ to head-up a new team tasked with surveilling those who pose a risk to our much valued freedoms. But when investigative journalists can expose awkward facts about nations and their less-than-scrupulous dealings, the edges between individuals who represent freedom and those who could inadvertently compromise it for those who wield power, become blurred. No such liberty vs order confusion exists for their besuited boss Hannah (Sarah Woodward) who effortlessly conveys the dispassionate jadedness of a bureaucrat who knows that to keep her departmental funding, she must demonstrate improved efficiencies - even if in reality, they are meaningless.

Cora (Rona Morison) a journalist, is about to break a story when her key source and friend dies in suspicious circumstances. Overcome by feelings of guilt and responsibility, her online searches suggest to Neil that she may be contemplating suicide, and against the rules, he continues to use surveillance resources to monitor her. When he intervenes in person, love blossoms - but how can it last when their union is based on a fundamental deception? The inevitable fracture provides a high point in the play and a searingly cruel break-up line in which one rebukes the other by stating that a parasite needs a host! It garnered an audibly shocked and disapproving reaction from virtually every member of the engaged audience.

Essentially Al Blyth’s behind-a-desk espionage thriller, explores the very realistic moral issues which surround surveillance operations conducted in the name of public safety and national security, at a time when the legal safeguards restricting their use, are always three steps behind the technological capabilities. The subject is a moral minefield, but thankfully the creative team have avoided getting bogged down with the paradoxical dilemmas and have managed to inform and educate whilst maintaining pace and allowing for emotional interaction. This is further enhanced by a nifty set design by Tom Piper which utilises projections to strongly reinforce the technological and surveillance elements.

All-in-all, a very promising start for the new guard at Hampstead, and The Haystack will undoubtedly be a strong contender for a West End transfer.