Edinburgh Fringe 2018
A superb, slick, physical adaptation of a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba inadvertently becoming embroiled in espionage
James Wormold is a British expat in post World War II Havana. A single father, facing a daily uphill struggle to run his vacuum cleaner business, he is unexpectedly employed by the British Government to seek out and report intelligence and also to recruit agents. While his desire to not let down his homeland provides some motivation, more importantly the windfall allowance granted eases his financial difficulties, allowing him to achieve elevated status within the community. He can, furthermore, now provide his daughter with the lifestyle that he would wish her to enjoy. The snag, though, is that he is an ordinary man with no idea about espionage. However, during one of his daily encounters with a German expat, a suggestion is made that will change his life : simply invent intelligence data. Wormold sets about this with hitherto unseen imagination and creativity ; so much so, in fact, that the international community sit up and take heed. His standing with his employers escalates. There is a price to pay of course : suddenly, events and characters, ostensibly created in Wormold’s head, start to become alarmingly real, with a death and assassination attempts.
Spies Like Us adapted Our Man In Havana in this highly stylised, physical work. The five cast members play a multitude of characters, expertly executed with eloquent synchronicity. All five performances are extremely strong…no weak links here. Sometimes physical pieces can be played out to the detriment of the overall story-telling, but Ollie Norton-Smith’s seamless direction ensures that the narrative underpinning Our Man In Havana is never lost. Theatrical ensembles can often fall back upon complicated sets, but this staging is the antithesis of this, the set solely consisting of a case containing a vacuum cleaner ; it is joyously minimalist. Spies Like Us combine to use the various components of the vacuum cleaner as, amongst other items, a razor blade, telephone, radar system, car, bar and, somehow, a dog. Ingenious. The audience are engulfed in a seductive depiction of sultry Cuba and the pace is unrelenting. The cast’s collective movement is visually beautiful, a huge credit to Dance Choreographer Zak Nemorin. It is all truly impressive.
Throughout history, individuals find themselves coerced or controlled by states. They are subjected to a variety of incentives, be it threats, financial or appeals to nationalism. Wormold is the everyman, albeit anti-hero, who manages, against all odds, to turn the tables on Government, providing a little victory for the underdog. Greene wrote this tale before the Cuban missile crisis, which briefly threatened to provoke World War III. He alludes to the dangers of misinformation in this dark comedy, half a century or more before the phrase ‘fake news’ was conceived ; he was undoubtedly ahead of his time.
This is superb, engaging and entertaining physical theatre which is unreservedly recommended.