Four apparently retired persons, two couples, are seated next to me. Woman 1 sits in rapt attention, apart from those occasions when she is tut-tutting (rightly, mind you) some scoundrel in the audience receiving texts or checking for messages on a hand held device. Her husband dozes almost continually after the on-stage screens have stopped the hypnotic swimming pool effect. Woman 2 looks puzzled and anxious throughout, especially when Mother swears. Her husband smiles constantly, finding every comic twist just that bit too funny.

Interval

Man 1: “It’s good, isn’t it?”

Woman 2: “Yes, it is.”

Man 2: “Thought it was a bit dull, myself”.

Woman 1: “Because you have the attention span of Nemo?”

Man 2: “I remembered it as funny”.

Woman 1: “It’s a spy drama. With science.”

Man 1: “I thought it was a feminist piece?”

Woman 1: “It’s Stoppard. It’s not feminist, it’s Felicity Kendall.”

Woman 2: “Let’s get a drink.”

Man 1: “You always need a drink with Stoppard.”

Woman 1: “We always need a drink with you at the theatre.”

Concentration seems a lost skill for many modern theatre going audiences. At a time when television viewers like to intently scrutinise and evaluate the content of programmes likeSherlockGames of Thrones, Broadchurch and even Downton Abbey, the majority of theatre audiences seem to prefer to have everything at lowest common denominator level. They don’t want to think, or worse, work something out. They just want to be told – and simply.

The plays of Tom Stoppard are exactly the sort of plays those people should see – because Stoppard’s writing never involves lowest common denominators. He always challenges the audience to follow his threads, find the dropped pennies, have the “Eureka!” moment. Rarely are his plays capable of simple classification.

Hapgood, one of Stoppard’s early successes is neither a comedy nor a spy drama. Rather, it is a personality puzzle with comic overtones and a splash of scientific insight.  Like most of Stoppard’s work, it is both complex and straight-forward. It is also something of a trail-blazer: the central character is an unmarried mother with a senior Government position. In 1988, when Hapgood premiered, such roles for women were scarcely common.

Mother is a senior spy for the British government. She realises there is a traitor in her camp and sets out to identify the turncoat. Intrigue and mis-direction piles up on top of enigmas, conundrums and surprise reveals. Twin reveals keep you guessing Gil almost the last. Along the way, you are urged to question each of the central characters; at one point, only really Mother’s young son, Joe, known as Hapgood to his school chums, seems safely not to be the traitor.

Working out what is happening, and why, is the true pleasure here. If you watch and listen and think, all is perfectly clear. It’s amusing too, and there are moments of almost surreal incomprehension – until a jigsawpiece falls into place and the vista clarifies. It must have been like that for my neighbours, for after the second Act all were enthusiastic about the play’s entertainment value.

This is Howard Davies’ revival of Hapgood for the Hampstead Theatre. With a splendidly up to date design from Ashley Martin-Davis and suspicion generating lighting and visual effects from James Farncombe and Ian William Galloway, together with a Smiley worthy score from Dominic Muldowney, this is a production which reeks style, glamour and suspicion. I doubt any production could look better or feel more appropriate than this one.

In the central role of Mother, Lisa Dillon relishes the opportunities the script provides. Her Mother is a tough cookie indeed, and razor sharp, but it is clear that, deep inside, there is a necessary softness which keeps her focused, grounded, alert. She is unafraid to use her feminine charms as an assault weapon and is a dab hand at complete obfuscation.

Dillon is superb throughout. Her sweet scenes with young Joe (an excellent, assured Sasha Gray) ring true as do her official dialogues with her colleagues and superiors and her more personal dealings with Alec Kerner’s double-agent Kerner. Dillon gets to show off, slightly, in the scenes where she also plays her estranged twin sister, a spirit wilder and freer than Mother’s. She carries this off marvellously: the moment when she is unexpectedly tortured to ensure real tears is graphic and effective. Her command of the language is superb and she has that splendid ability to make critical information seem superfluous, a key aide in maintaining the mystery.

As the urbane, possibly traitorous, Blair, Tim McMullen is totally convincing, with the character’s quicksilver thought processes crystal clear. Inscrutable through blankness, McMullen’s Blair is like a perfect battle machine: quiet, powerful, deadly, but able to shift course as circumstances develop. Gerald Kyd’s unsettling Ridley could come from any Bond orBourne scenario; he is an archetypal spook, moody, alert, volatile and slightly fuelled by rage. It is Kyd’s believability as a mercenary which is key to the plot twists which turn on a critical kidnapping.

There are good turns too from Nick Blakeley as the all-seeing civil servant, Maggs, and Edward Hancock as the gormless but entitled Merryweather. Kerner is especially good in making the chunks of science digestible and satisfyingly comprehensible. The final scene between Kerner and Mother is particularly fine.

Davies directs with a thorough and certain vision, one dictated by the need for obfuscation and then clarity. Although it might seem confusing along the way, only those unwilling to invest time and attention will not completely understand the machinations of the writer when the final blackout comes.

This is rewarding, fun and enjoyable Stoppard. Davies and Dillon combine to provide a theatrical cocktail that is compellingly attractive.

Four stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.