Classic tale of wartime paranoia

Spies: Michael Frayn, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until Saturday Michael Frayn has a singularly urbane gift for imaginative, atmospheric story-telling.

Ivan Howlett

Spies: Michael Frayn, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until Saturday

Michael Frayn has a singularly urbane gift for imaginative, atmospheric story-telling. Daniel Jamieson's intelligent stage adaptation of his 2002 Whitbread prize-winning novel, Spies, is a narrative drama that hooks your attention and holds it throughout.

It's a memory tale of childhood recollected and pieced together in old age. An old man returns to the cul-de-sac in suburban Surrey where he grew up during the war. He watches and narrates as his boyhood self (Benjamin Warren) and his insufferably snooty but cruelly treated best friend, Keith (John-Paul Macleod) play together and think how best to help the war effort.


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What sends them down what turns out to be the wrong path is Keith's sudden outburst that he thinks his mother is a German spy.

Two lads proceed to follow her, writing down what she does and where she goes, sneaking in to read her diary, and spying from a garden hideaway. At first it's silly but harmless. We can indulge as the old Stephen (the excellent Derek Frood) recalls and countryside smells that help unlock the past.

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There comes a point, however, when her odd outings lead to things spiralling frighteningly out of control. Without fully understanding what's going on - they have there own growing-up pressures to deal with - the short-trousered boys find themselves lost in the emotional complexities of the adult world.

It's relationships, marital cruelty, even battle stress, desertion and death with which the young Stephen has to deal. There are echoes of Whistle Down The Wind and even of the perception of childhood given in the novels of L.P. Hartley and William Golding.

The whole thing is played out on James Cotterill's corrugated iron panelled set, so moveable and expansive it gives almost film location areas for the action. There are privet-hedged gardens, streets, the railway line, a tunnel under a railway bridge, and secret hideaways.

Director Nikki Sved's inventive staging, using the narration and an onstage cello and accordion, keeps things moving as we gradually guess how events will finally pan out.

There are some fine performances here. I'd pick out the boys, especially Benjamin Warren as the twitching, almost speechless Stephen, Christian Flint as Keith's sinister father, Jordan Whyte as the poor spied-on mother, and at the centre of the voyage of discovery into the past, Derek Frood's old Stephen.

A rivetting night's theatre.

Ivan Howlett

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