Cut to the Chase at the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
Havana Mojitos in the bar, Cuban Sandwiches in the café, a Daiquiri recipe in the programme – a very authentic flavour of Cuba for the first Cut to the Chase show of 2014.
Graham Greene's comic masterpiece is set in 50s Havana, before Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it's a volatile place, with decadence, corruption and espionage on every street corner.
Bob Carlton's wonderfully evocative production uses a simple stage, framed by steel girders, only very partially concealed by peeling stucco and crumbling brickwork. The masterstroke of Norman Coates's design is the wooden screens, which slide smoothly to and fro to create a new scene, or to cover an entrance or an exit. Hard to describe, but a delight to watch. Andy Smart's atmospheric lighting plays a key role, too – the ceiling fan, the strip club.
The four actors have enormous fun, delivering Greene's inimitable narration, swapping characters in an instant behind those restless screens – only Sean Needham is allowed the luxury of a single role. He's our anti-hero Wormold, vacuum-cleaner salesman turned secret agent, whose greedy imagination invents a whole network of spies around him. Needham skilfully suggests the naivete and the knowingness of this hapless cold war pawn.
Token woman Alison Thea-Skot creates a glorious gallery of supporting roles, including Wormold's difficult schoolgirl daughter – a wonderful physical creation – a chain-smoking Scots secretary, a Latin mistress, an Irishman, and Beatrice, sent by London station to assist with the Havana operation, but eventually joining forces with Wormold, skipping off with him in a moment of coy choreography at the final curtain.
Sam Pay is excellent as spymaster Hawthorne, and the mysterious Dr Hasselbacher. He also finds time to give us enemy agent Carter and the voluptuous Teresa.
Sam Kordbacheh mops up all the other parts, attacking each one with evident relish: the faithful Lopez, the Reverend Mother, and suave, sinister Segura, the Chief of Police who confronts Wormold over the famous game of checkers played with Scotch and Bourbon miniatures.
Clive Francis's adaptation is witty, inventive and very funny. The fateful lunch is especially enjoyable, and the car routine merits a round of applause. But it does not entirely neglect the “other side to the joke” the victims of the game of spies. There's a chilling twist at the end of Act One, and when things turn nasty it's not only the dog who dies.
This is the kind of thing that the Queen's does superbly well. Remember Greene's Travels With My Aunt, back in 2010, also featuring Sam Pay ? This show deserves a wide audience; work of this quality is increasingly rare on the repertory stage.
production photograph by Nobby Clark