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Rusted Dust’s “The Communist Threat,” which is currently playing at the Zoo Southside, appears to be straightforwardly meant for lovers of John le Carré‘s fiction. Indeed, it virtually rolls us over and tickles our tummies. The play puts forward a meeting which could have occurred late at night in any of the Smiley novels. There is bluff and double-bluff and triple-bluff; a surprise jumps out from around every corner of the maze. The story is set in Vienna in 1950, a period when, as we know now, a network of Soviet moles in British intelligence was outing “traitors” who were nothing of the sort. When in this play a British agent is confronted with accusations about his allegiance to Communism, we know immediately that the journey to the bottom of his story will be long and winding.

The two writers don’t delegate their creations. Kieran O’Rourke is Nightingale, a working-class Northerner who has infiltrated British intelligence at a time when most of its jobs were still allocated between public-school chums. He is bumptiously “common,” as this class of person was once called, but he can be relied upon for a line of good commonsensical humour at the expense of the Circus’ snobbery. A tirade about the inadequacies of cricket (i.e. “…if I’m in a field for two days, I’m lost”) earns a smattering of involuntary, but then determined applause from the audience. There is room enough in this character, however, for menace and danger.

David Holmes is Kingfisher, at first a stiff public-school bore who lectures Nightingale paternalistically about whisky, though he quickly seems like a plausible assassin. A lot has been invested in these two characters and they are both fascinatingly vivid. Both men were prisoners of war and Kingfisher’s best remark comes with the insinuation that being “raped by a Jap” would be far worse than by a Russian. Yes, he is even a snob when it comes to this.

Kingfisher explains that he finds his beloved cricket to be so compelling due to its “inconsequential moments,” and “The Communist Threat” is similarly alert about the details. I liked the notion that Kingfisher, who has killed countless people for the British state, is interested in inventing the seatbelt, one of the glories of health-and-safety culture. It is an irony to rejoice in.

Soon the struggle between the two men is as mesmerisingly intense as a ritualised mating dance between two cannibalistic insects. The story is at times in peril of becoming a little silly; there are so many twists in the action that it cannot help vaguely bordering on farce. “The Communist Threat” is prevented by its choices as a play from demonstrating any great originality, but within these self-imposed constraints, it is very enjoyable and very well done. It knows what it wants to be and it inhabits this role perfectly.

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