Theatre hottie of the month: November
Review: John Simm and Gemma Chan in The Homecoming, Trafalgar Studios

Review: Double dealing spies in Hapgood, Hampstead Theatre

Lisa Dillon (Hapgood) in Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre. Photos by Alastair Muir.
Lisa Dillon (Hapgood) in Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre. Photos by Alastair Muir

Tom Stoppard likes his science. It's probably why the only play of his I've seen that I've really liked is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (see link below). I don't have anything against science it's just the way he uses it in his plays, I feel it often gets in the way, slows things down. Poly disagrees with me.

In Hapgood, Stoppard's 1980's set spy drama, the science is quantum physics. Russian physicist Kerner (Alec Newman) has been turned double agent by MI6 boss Hapgood (Lisa Dillon). When  his information drop to the Russian's at a swimming pool doesn't go according to plan there is suspicion that either Kerner's loyalty has reversed to his home nation or there is a double agent in the home team.

Kerner likes to explain how he sees things using quantum physics. His explanations are quite lengthy and often complex. This being a spy drama where everyone has poker faces and is under suspicion these, fortunately infrequent, interludes just halt the tension rather than add to it. There is less science in Hapgood than there is in Arcadia and that is a bonus here because, putting the science to one side, as a spy thriller it works well.

The opening scene  is a little disorientating - perhaps deliberately so. Set at the swimming pool a line of changing cubicles is used to pass briefcases between agents with towels being draped on the back of the door as a series of secret signs. Once Hapgood and her team start assessing 'the drop' and what went wrong it isn't immediately obviously what has taken place and who had responsibility for what. Those first impressions of each agent are frequently challenged as Stoppard arouses your suspicion about them all including Hapgood.

Alec Newman (Kerner) and Tim McMullan (Blair) in Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre. Photos by Alastair Muir.
Alec Newman (Kerner) and Tim McMullan (Blair) in Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre. Photos by Alastair Muir.

Our titular character is astute, smart and unflappable with a keen eye for strategy - she plays chess from memory with someone who phones in their moves from Canada. But she has another, human side you see occasionally. She is a protective and loving single mum having had a romance while out in the field. She also likes to bend the rules just a little taking calls from her son on the Prime Minister's hotline. It makes her likeable and admirable even if you aren't sure if you can trust her.

The second half of Hapgood rattles along at a far better pace than the first which seems to take a long time to set things off. The plot does verge on becoming ridiculous at one point but overall this is a good, tense spy thriller with a great female protagonist and for that I'll forgive Tom Stoppard his science obsession.

It runs at the Hampstead Theatre until January 23 and is two hours and 25 minutes including an interval.

Other Tom Stoppard plays I've seen:

The Hard Problem, National Theatre

Arcadia, Bristol Tobacco Factory

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket


Stan fav Lisa Dillon was in Design for Living with Andrew Scott who was in Cock and Spectre with Mr W.