Alex Holley, Edinburgh Fringe, Graham Greene, Hamish Lloyd Barnes, Ollie Norton-Smith, Our Man in Havana, Phoebe Campbell, Pleasance Courtyard, Rosa Collier, Spies Like Us Theatre, Theatre Review, Tullio Campanale
The question for this audience is whether justice can be ever done to Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana (1958) in the form of a physical farce. Greene’s fictions invariably became films and Our Man in Havana was itself adapted in 1959, with Alec Guinness playing the fraudulent spy James Wormold. But can one really caper through Greeneland? This production is from Spies Like Us Theatre and it is established throughout the Fringe at the Pleasance Courtyard. An ensemble of five skilful performers scoot and rhumba and cha-cha-chá through Greene’s story. From somewhere within it they locate a wacky hurtling aeroplane and karate-kicking spies. I might be wrong, but I’m not sure that the line “spank me cross-eyed” had ever occurred in the original novel.
For me, the neediness of Greene’s Catholicism haunts everything and the deceit and betrayal that runs through Our Man In Havana, its cloying perfume of Judas, is the most real aspect of the book. I know that it is hardly a work of theology but it seems curiously hollow and plastic without having even a drop of this in the mix. Greene was never uproarious and his novels were never turned into cartoons. Spies Like Us do very well to get the story across through physical theatre – everything is clear, even the character-switching scenes on a busy dancefloor. Those who are most familiar with this story will be nevertheless frustrated the most by the skirting around of its substance.
After my early misgivings, I find this production very likeable and watchable. This sort of farce resembles silly putty – so flexible that it can be moulded into anything. There are about forty thousand different leering and gurning faces used in “Our Man in Havana,” with at least half of them being rattled off at a machine-gun rate by Tullio Campanale. Indeed, it is hard to tear your eyes away from him in order to enjoy the other performers. Yet Rosa Collier is nicely droll as Wormold’s supposedly sensible daughter Milly.
The penny eventually drops. These performers are weaving Cuban nightclubs and Whitehall ministries out of the air, just as Wormold had done with his network of agents. The symmetry is pleasing; it brings a little elegance without disrupting the jokey aesthetic. In addition, there is a visible dolefulness to Alex Holley’s Wormold that comes to gradually align with the melancholy of Greeneland. So this lot in the end, and rather like Wormold himself, get away with it.