Mark Reed reviews Hugh Whitmore’s play Pack Of Lies now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
Pack Of Lies
Menier Chocolate Factory
2 October 2018
Pack Of Lies was penned by playwright and screenwriter Hugh Whitmore back in 1983. Based on a true story from the 1960s, the play follows the lives of Barbara and Bob Jackson – an ordinary but perfectly happy couple enjoying a humdrum existence in Ruislip. But when a detective from Scotland Yard asks if they can place agents in their house to uncover a Soviet spy ring operation in the area, their lives are suddenly turned upside down. If this wasn’t enough, they fear the detective may have an interest in their neighbours and good friends, Helen and Peter Kroger. Herein lies the drama which is played out over two and a half hours at The Menier Chocolate Factory.
Director Hannah Chissick has crafted a strong production. The relationships and characters are all finely drawn, and the foibles of the Jackson family are superbly characterised. Daughter Julie is pursuing the unsuitable bad boy, while asserting that perpetually being late to school is just in her biology. When not worrying about her daughter, Barbara is offering cups of tea to all and sundry and plumping cushions. Bob is oblivious to all the ongoings in his house and is mostly concerned about visitors sitting in his armchair. All three actors give charming performances and there’s a lot of humour in their interactions.
On regular occasions, the mesmerising Helen Kroger drops in with her husband in tow. She sweeps around the Jackson family home, captivating all in her wake before she throws herself on the sofa and lights up a cigarette. She’s loud, brash and outrageous, but adored by all. She’s also kind and loves Barbara and Julie dearly.
The set design is gorgeously detailed and my eye was instantly drawn to the period furnishings and all the retro items on display. Paul Farnsworth has done a terrific job here and there are so many added touches that help bring the era to life.
Once all the main players have been established, the production momentarily takes its foot off the gas. We know something is about to happen, but it takes just a little bit too long to get there. Thankfully, the gears start to shift towards the end of the first half as we see Barbara struggling with deceiving her friend, while simultaneously starting to distrust her.
Both Tracey-Ann Oberman and Finty Williams give exceptional performances. Oberman has an enchanting stage presence and you don’t take your eyes off her when she’s on stage. Finty Williams gives an emotional powerhouse of a performance as Barbara, torn between betrayal, lies and a fierce loyalty to her friend.
The second half is where this production really starts to fly. The play makes us question if we can ever truly know and – more importantly – trust the people around us. Are our cousins, colleagues, friends and neighbours really who they say they are? And is it more important to do what’s right, or to do right by our friends? Oberman and Williams keep these questions running through our minds as the tension builds towards the play’s close. Their last scene together is beautifully intimate, haunting and utterly devastating.
There is fine acting from the rest of the cast too. Chris Larkin’s portrayal of Bob is top notch, with his comedic physicality and poignant addresses to the audience. Macy Nyman gives us a finely observed portrayal of teenage Julie, desperately believing she’s grown up but still a child in many ways. Jasper Britton plays Stewart just right, perfectly conjuring up this consummate spycatcher who is, as he says himself, very good at his job.
At the end of the play, I found myself wondering what became of the Krogers and the Jacksons on my journey home. That’s the mark of a great piece of theatre in my book, one that leaves you guessing, thinking and wanting to know just that little bit more about the lives of the people you’ve just witnessed on stage.