A sparse cast delves into a compelling web of secrecy
Ciphers, a brand new thriller by award-winning writer Dawn King, is partly inspired by the real-life story of MI6 employee Gareth Williams, whose body was found in 2010 locked inside a sports bag in his bathroom.
Dawn King (Most Promising Playwright at the Off West End Awards 2012) explores themes of secrecy and the pain of loved ones who are left behind with no chance of ever really knowing what happened.
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It is directed by Blanche McIntyre, who this week was named Best Director at the 2013 UK Theatre Awards.
The set is sparse and clever, with each element being multi-purpose; there are also subtitle screens for the occasions when the characters speak Russian and Japanese.
There are just four actors, each playing two parts in a fast-moving story which requires them to switch roles frequently and at the drop of a hat – literally, in the case of Ronny Jhutti, who plays artist Kai and reluctant undercover agent Kareem.
The story follows the misfortunes of Justine (Gráinne Keenan), a failed marketing officer who, after being made redundant, applies for a job with the British intelligence service. Delighted to be given an office job, monitoring the activities of potential enemies, she is then thrown into the deep end as an agent. She's out of her depth in this world of deception, despite being very much a part of it.
When she is found dead – an apparent suicide – only her sister, Kerry (also played by Keenan), decides to dig deeper. She and her parents are shocked to discover that plain and predictable Justine had been working as a British spy. When Kerry tells her dad (Bruce Alexander): "Justine always does as she's told," she shows that she knows her sister better than anyone. It is a telling revelation.
Bruce Alexander – best known as Superintendent Mullet in A Touch of Frost – is brilliant in his role as the Russian, Koplov. Shereen Martin, who plays Sunita from British intelligence and Anoushka, Kai's rich and controlling wife, completes the cast.
The four actors worked their socks off from start to finish and thoroughly deserved the warm applause they received from an appreciative audience. There was a lovely moment after the cast had left the stage when Bruce Alexander could just about be seen from my corner of the auditorium joyfully doing the thumbs up and hugging his co-stars.
The play is co-produced by touring theatre company Out of Joint, London's Bush Theatre and Exeter Northcott Theatre where the play was premiered last week in advance of a national tour.