Watch in amazement as civilisation is saved by just eight actors with a few tricks up their sleeves.
Sarah Punshon and Johann Hari have based their show on an early Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary, published in 1922, the first outing for the sleuthing duo Tommy and Tuppence. Their adaptation, still with its original title, premièred last year at the Watermill in Berkshire, and enjoyed a modest tour thereafter.
Now, with a new title and a new director, John Nicholson, it comes to the Queen’s, a perfect fit for their house style and their actor/musicians. The plot – beastly Bolsheviks, secret agents, mysterious mastermind – could be Buchan, and the playful feel of the tongue-in-cheek treatment will remind many of the West End Thirty-Nine Steps.
The company catches the 1920s era precisely. Naomi Sheldon is a bright young Tuppence, more than a match for the baddies, unfairly overlooked for a job in the Ministry, the reward offered to Richard Holt’s stiff-upper-lip Tommy on the final page. Isla Carter is the soi-disant Annette, Phillip Batley the stereotype American searching for his long-lost cousin Jane, a survivor of the Lusitania. Rita, the Vamp from Valparaiso, belting out a snatch of Helen Kane’s hit I Want To Be Bad, is played with great relish by Rebecca Bainbridge, who’s also the bewhiskered Bolshevik conspirator Kramenin. Nigel Lister is the man from the ministry, suave, sophisticated, keeping his secret until the last moment. Survivor from the Watermill, Morgan Philpott plays Mr Whittington, many other parts (a monocled announcer, then seconds later the Home Secretary), plus a mean banjo – his rendition of See Him In Your Dreams (referring to that master of disguise “Mr Brown”) is one of many musical highlights.
Alex Silverman’s excellent score uses popular song and incidental music, silent movie style, for the fights and the chases. And Mr Battley’s bassoon for suspense. Inga Davis-Rutter at the stage left upright is joined by instrumentalists from the cast, and everyone joins in the white tie and tails opening number: Look For The Silver Lining, Jerome Kern’s hit of 1920.
Tom Rogers’ set is crucial to the mood and the mechanics of the piece. A gloomy backstage décor with, centre stage, a huge keyhole. Ruched silk curtains rise to reveal various simple settings, swiftly and stylishly changed. Lots of illusion – an economics lecture done with magic tricks – and countless ingenious devices. The exposition is done over the subtly hilarious washing up, the General Strike with ombres chinoises, the Lusitania with a magic lantern. And, best of all, Tommy assumes a disguise on the hoof by stunning sleight of hand. Doors, traps, ladders, trolleys are all used with dazzling skill at a breath-taking pace.
True, the plot is convoluted – we’re given a recap at the top of Act Two – but the story is not really the point here. What Hornchurch is giving us, gift-wrapped and delectable, is a reminder of a time of austerity, social unrest and political uncertainty, and two hours of escapist fun as we scan the skies for a silver lining of our own.