Review: Our Man in Havana, VAULT Festival

An hour long madcap adventure told through a fog of Cuban cigar smoke and perhaps one-too-many daiquiris, Spies Like Us’ adaptation of Our Man in Havana strives more than anything to be a bit of fun. Devised through an enticing combination of physical theatre and 70s-style character-driven humour, the pace in the script and creative direction of this production provides Graham Greene’s classic spy novel with a real fresh kick of life. 

Set in the twilight days of pre-Castro Cuba’s military dictatorship, Our Man in Havana tells the story of James Wormold (Alex Holley), a disgruntled English vacuum cleaner salesman who accepts a job in espionage in order to pay for his daughter Milly’s extravagances. Unable to find any real information, Wormold decides to totally fabricate a network of agents – strategy that work for a time, until his artificial world begins to overlap with a more threatening reality and Wormold loses the ability to control what he has created. 

Despite the self-conscious fustiness of the play’s English characters and sensibilities, this is a very tight production that consistently maintains an extraordinary amount of energy. Ollie Norton-Smith and Hamish Lloyd Barnes’ script is slick and effective, triggering many a genuine laugh through a generous sprinkling of surrealist jokes that hang in the air with little relevance to the plot around. The play sustains the intrigue and suspense necessary for a thriller – but always through a golden, sun-kissed lens under which all threat is essentially benign. 

Performances throughout are sharp and faultlessly interlinked as the cast runs and jumps around the stage, acting various different characters and ideas as they devise the various scenarios of the plot. Co-writer Hamish Lloyd Barnes is due a particular mention for the sheer variety of farcical facial expressions he is able to create, as well as his ability to really turn camp extravagance up to the full. Much of the humour relies on the use of caricature – an enterprise that takes no prisoners in the creation of snarling Cubans, a mysterious German professor and inept Englishmen with their heads in the clouds.

The physical theatre from choreographer Zac Nemorinand is performed faultlessly by all cast-members, and encompasses everything from salsa dances, guttural blowings out of the cheeks and dramatic acrobatics, used to mimic such items as jet engines, beer taps and vacuum cleaners. The actors are also not always engaged in silent mime: they express circumstantial emotion by contorting their faces and reacting to dialogue even when ostensibly in freezeframe, providing this tale of espionage with an appropriate sense of there always being someone listening in. 

A plot revolving around Wormold the fraudulent spy’s ability to spin something out of nothing finds an appropriate home in a sparse stage format where multitudinous objects and scenery are themselves imagined through the simple dramatic positioning of actors’ bodies. So wonderfully effective is this method of evoking the bamboozling world of Cold War espionage that, should anyone in the audience squint at certain points through the humid, smokey air of the subterranean Waterloo Vaults as they listen to cut-glass English squabbling about missile bases and country clubs, they might just themselves be transported to the tropical climes of 1950s Havana.

Our Man in Havana is playing the VAULT Festival until 5 March. For more information and tickets, visit the VAULT Festival website.