The Spook

Playhouse (Belvoir Street Company B)


Professional production

Its 1965, and the South Bendigo branch of the Australian Communist Party is in crisis. The five members are split over developing issues in the world-wide Communist party, and the future of the branch is at stake. Theres a nave teenage mole (Martin, played with Damon Herriman) in their ranks, who reports on whos doing what, and with which, and to whom, to a tall ASIO operative straight out of Homicide , with dark glasses and a Mafia hat.

Martin is married to the fluffy local hairdresser; his sub-suburban mum (Kerry Walker) is distressed that he?s left the Roman Catholic church; and as well as the notorious Reds under the bed, Australia is being overrun by Jewish intellectuals.

Its just like a Hollywood spoof where is Jerry Lewis when you really need him? and the first act is hysterically funny, as all the caricatures of the 1960s come alive before our eyes.

Stop laughing! This is serious. It is the mid-sixties, the time of Kim Philby, the Colonels in Greece, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the war in Vietnam, and the memory of the Petrov defection still permeates Australian political thinking.

ASIO might have been run by under-educated bumbling fools, but they were powerful fools, as were the local plods, whose stupidity made them even more dangerous.

Anyone who questions the decisions of the state is automatically under suspicion, and refugees from oppressive foreign regimes are of course enemies of the state, and probably spies as well.

You dont need me to draw the parallels, but the unstated analogy with Queensland in the 1970s, and Australia as a whole today, is what gives the script its sinister sub-text, and should make it a powerful spine-tingling drama.

But thats just what we dont get in Neil Armfields production for Sydneys Belvoir Street Company B. The first act is played as farce, and quite uneven farce at that, so when the denouement comes towards the end of the second act, we cant really take it seriously. These are spoof characters, after all, and because they are so silly and inconsequential in the first half, we cant experience the full horror of George and Ellis fate, even though its a common enough one for illegal migrants today – and I cant say more than that without giving away the plot.

Perhaps the only thing that really works is Martins gradual and horrified realisation that the political can become the personal, and that divided loyalties can destroy the person who holds them as much as the person betrayed.

There are some lovely performances, especially Eugenia Fragos and George Spartles as Elli and George, and Russel Kiefel sending up the belligerent Party secretary and the thuggish policeman with equal aplomb, but overall the standard of acting was pretty average. You see more convincing portrayals of sixties stock types on television any night.

A clever set, where the bare bones of an unfinished building can be CWA hall, private garage, kitchen or police station; a haunting because almost unheard original score; and some surreal moments of fantasy Russian dancing these all add to our enjoyment of the show, but cant rescue what is basically an unsatisfactory interpretation of a script that deserves more subtle treatment.

Directed by Neil Armfield

Playing until 5 March 2005: Monday and Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday 1pm, 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday 7.30pm, Saturday 2pm, 7.30pm

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 16th February 2005)