Pack of Lies

(Act I Theatre)


Here’s a bit of age-old advice to all the kids out there: sassing your parents will always come back to bite you sharply on the rear end. Let me explain.

The setting for Pack of Lies is a neat, semi-detached house in the outer suburbs of 1960s London. Bob and Barbara Jackson (Errol Barnett and Cheryl Bartlett) live there peacefully with their teenage daughter Julie (Jenny Lynch). Early in the play Julie complains that her mother is a constant worrier and chronic nagger. “Ha!” I whispered triumphantly to my mother next to me. But a few minutes later, when Barbara complains about Julie’s irresponsibility, untidiness and general slackness, my Mum got her quiet revenge. So having learned my lesson, I just shut the hell up and watched the play.

Pack of Lies is described in the programme as “Hugh Whitemore’s Spy Drama”. So I guess I wouldn’t be revealing too much to say it poses the question, “How would your life change if you were told your neighbours were spies?”. It’s 1960, the middle of the Cold War, and the suburbs is the last place you’d think would be a base for foreign agents. But the arrival of the self-described “civil servant” Mr Stewart (Peter Lovely), throws the Jacksons’ comfortable, sheltered life in turmoil.

Mr Stewart wants to use their house for a surveillance operation. It’s only supposed to be for a few days, and the Jacksons agree. Helping their country, that sort of thing. But days turn into weeks, and suspicion falls onto their neighbours and best friends for five years Helen and Peter (Niki Geary and Mark Edwards). The rest of the play is the reaction of this family to the mounting evidence that their friends are spies.

The Act 1 players shine here all the performances are polished and real. Director Pauline Davies has channelled their talents into the proper, well, channels, and the actors ensure the characters are identifiable and likeable. It makes it hard for the audience to believe that the fun next door neighbours aren’t what they seem. Special mention goes to Cheryl Bartlett, who as Barbara becomes the central character, as it is she who has to deal with the surveillance team during the day, her husband and daughter at night, and with her best friend Helen at any time Helen wishes to pop in. Barbara’s increasing sense of torture and frustration at having to play at all these lies is well painted by Bartlett. I felt that the characters of Helen and Peter should have been older their youthfulness didn’t match they years in the script. However, despite this anomaly, they both performed well.

As enjoyable as the play was, I did have some problems with the script itself. Writer Hugh Whitemore must have had a “tell, don’t show” approach to this play. Lots of the action takes place in monologues that characters deliver between real time scenes. It’s a handy device for some stories (for example, why Peter became disillusioned with capitalism), but unhelpful for others. I felt it would have been much more interesting to have seen Barbara’s reaction to first seeing a known spy come out of Helen and Peter’s house in a real scene, rather than described in a monologue.

Also, the ending was somewhat anti-climactic, due again to these monologues. There they were, waiting, watching, fearing what would happen. Then all of a sudden it was over, and Bob Jackson delivered the final monologue. The ending didn’t wrap up everything as well as it could have, and it left me slightly unsatisfied. I realise that these problems were not Act 1’s fault; indeed they handled them admirably.

One thing they did have control over was the set. While suitable, I didn’t feel it particularly evoked the period. It did look like it could have been a modern day house I didn’t realise it was 1960 until somebody onstage mentioned it. However, my bigger problem with the set was the continuous crossing of the invisible wall. I think I had this criticism of the last Act 1 play I reviewed. It was actually worse this time. There were hands, arms, legs and various other body parts going through the wall constantly. It sounds like a small thing, but it has the potential to ruin the illusion that the set is two separate rooms. To remedy this, I would have made the kitchen smaller than the living room. Most of the action happened in the living room, so it would have benefited from an extra 50 cm or so of room. I do appreciate that the Act 1 stage is small, but perhaps slightly readjusting the set would help the actors move more freely.

On the whole, this production was a neat one believable performances and an interesting story. But I would recommend Act 1 re-examine their use of invisible walls!

— Natalie Bochenski
(Performance seen: Fri 14th September 2001)