Theatre Alibi is a company that prides itself on staging the unstageable, and the use of space in this production is certainly inventive, accommodating domestic rooms, a railway line, and the crawl-space leading to the children’s hideout. Much is required of the audience’s imagination, which works very well in a context of childhood make-believe, and allows for some good visual gags: the immaculate Mrs Hayward sticking her bottom in the air to crawl under an invisible hedge; the children, and Stefan, cramming themselves into unexpected places to hide from the grown-ups. The individual performances are great – particularly Benjamin Warren as the droopy-socked, scary-haired urchin Stephen, monosyllabic in the presence of adults (and girls) but possessed of a desperate desire to do the right thing. Jordan Whyte also excels as the sophisticated but flawed adult Mrs Hayward, whose veneer of domestic poise masks an ordinary well of need and unhappiness. The interplay between the adult Stefan and the boy Stephen is also a delight, as the old man echoes the emotions, and the actions, of the child.
It’s usually long-standing fans of a book who are disappointed at its adaptation, but even without having read Spies I have a faint sense that this isn’t really a novel that should have been dramatised. Michael Frayn is an undeniably accomplished storyteller, and, as good a job as Theatre Alibi do, they can’t hope to explore fully all the story’s themes, nor to maintain a feeling of suspense without drawing the audience more deeply into the world of 1940s suburbia than seems possible in a stage production. As a friend rather wistfully summed it up: “I bet it makes a great novel”.
But it's still a very good play. Surprisingly demanding, it takes the audience in unexpected directions, raising questions of innocence and accountability through a very authentic portrayal of childhood (as I remember it, anyway), and a dark, poignant, and familiar take on adulthood.