Review: Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre, London

A Cold War spy thriller by arguably Britain’s greatest living playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard, is the perfect antidote to the West End’s festive fare.

theatre, hampstead
Lisa Dillion as Elizabeth Hapgood in Hapgood Credit: Alistair Muir

London’s West End is a Mecca for visitors keen to sample the capital’s world-beating theatrical offerings. Theatreland – as the region densely packed with venues both famous and infamous is known – is a twinkly lit bustling mass of glitz and glamour and, at this time of year, it becomes even more so as its stages fill with fantastical festive offerings.

While these high-octane shows serve up many delights, those in search of a calmer cultural experience can head out the city centre to sample one London’s many off-West End venues, whose theatrical offers are almost guaranteed to be no less edifying. Indeed, at many of these theatres you’ll find the stars of stage and screen treading the boards in intimate venues in productions by those at the very top of their creative fields.

Hampstead theatre
The Hampstead Theatre Credit: Daisy-Hutchison/Hampstead Theatre

The Hampstead Theatre’s current production of Hapgood, a sophisticatedly scientific spy thriller by Sir Tom Stoppard is a wonderful example. Howard Davies’s excellent revival is the first production of the play since its initial run in London in 1988. At the time, its particle physics witticisms baffled audiences. But, now, the play seems to have found its natural place and time; these days, a tech-savvy and science-literate audience barely blinks at the mention of a neutron, while the lo-fi world of Cold War espionage, familiar to us from the novels of John le Carre and earlier incarnations of James Bond, feels more quaintly charming than threatening.

The play turns on spy craft and Stoppard draws intelligently on the familiar genre, while also stirring in a dose of the contradictory truths of quantum physics, to mediate on the perplexing nature human motivation in way that still rings true in today’s world. Indeed, the playwright said recently: “The world of the spy may be the best analogue of the human condition – writ large.”

Hapgood, Hampsetad
Tim Mcmullan as Blair in Hapgood at the Hampstead Theatre Credit: Lisa Dillion as Elizabeth Hapgood in Hapgood Credit: Alistair Muir

Stoppard, who is a also responsible for the crowd-pleasing yet smart film Shakespeare in Love, recently called Hapgood as his ‘plot’ play which he intended to be ‘light on its feet’ – and, from the opening moments, it’s clear he achieved his ambition. As the lights go down, we’re hit with a dizzying display of double-crossing spies engaging in a super complex briefcase drop in a row of changing room cubicles that’s so complex it’s hilarious.

What follows is giddy romp through Cold War’s End Game and a fascinating look at world that was already on its way out. Stoppard’s interested in the human truths – or the lack of them – rather than political rights and wrongs, as the plot unfolds around the eponymous Hapgood, wonderfully played by Lisa Dillon. A female Secret Service chief known as ‘Mother’ to her underlings, who is an actual mother to a son by her the double (or is it triple or quadruple?) agent and Russian physicist, Kerner – played with gusto and charm by Alec Newman – Elizabeth Hapgood is the beating heart of the story. She is at once a ruthlessly effective spy and a mum who uses her hotline to 10 Downing Street (a nostalgically clunking red rotary phone) to chat to her son at prep school. Hapgood and Kerner are are joined in their endlessly unravelling dilemma by the brilliant Tim McMullan as Blair, a quintessential british spy; the Oxbridge, Whitehall and London’s gentlemen’s club man who is as outmoded as he is gentile.

Lisa Dillion as Hapgood and Alec Newman as Kerner Credit: Alistair Muir

Over the course of two-and-half hours, we take in everything from the troubling nature of waves of light, twins, duality and Einstein to rugby boots, lost keys and kidnapping in this display of intellectual and verbal dexterity that leaves us in no doubt why Stoppard is so revered.

We may never be able to work out who switched the contents of that briefcase – maybe all of them, maybe none of them – and why, but that’s not really the point of Hapgood. Instead, sit back and be amazed as the play’s world is wound tight then unravelled in style on the stage in what is a world-class production from the Hampstead Theatre.

Nestled a stone’s throw from Swiss Cottage Tube, itself a charming throwback to 1930s, the theatre sits in a region of the city that enjoys a great literary, artistic and thespian pedigree. With former residents as illustrious as William Blake, John Constable, Ian Fleming, John Keats, Alfred Tennyson and Sigmund Freud, it boasts a wealth of attractions for the culturally inclined tourist. The Freud Museum and Keats’ House are both nearby, as are the bucolic offerings of Hampstead Heath, the inspiration for many of Constable’s landscapes, and Regent’s Park, making it the perfect place to get off the beaten track and enjoy some literary entertainment.

Hapgood runs until January 23.

Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 3EU.

Box Office: 020 7722 9301





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