Review by Sam Waite
Audience members arriving ahead of time to Riverside Studios get to be a part of the unique creative conceit for new play Spy for Spy. Attached to wooden blocks with the names and scenes and songs written on their underside are six heart shaped balloons, to be selected in a random order by volunteers from that night’s audience. This running order is then displayed for all to see and document, and the six scenes of Kieron Barry’s play will be performed in this order.
Barry likens memory to a shuffled playlist and has leaned into that idea for this piece – a prologue and epilogue frames and contextualises the work, but the selection process allows for 720 variations of the story to play out. “Alexa, play Sarah and Molly’s Playlist,” says Sarah (Amy Lennox) in the first line of the text, before being too emotional at what we will learn is their song and asking Alexa to instead shuffle. With Molly (Olive Gray) joining her on stage, the memory linked to each of the playlist’s other songs begins to play out.
The plotlines throughout aren’t the most wildly inventive – Sarah is older and worries she’s too dull, Molly wants to be an actor but begins to doubt it’s worth the struggle, breakups and makeups occur, a health crisis puts all other emotions aside – but they are well-written and tightly paced. Barry’s dialogue allows both performers moments of witty banter and creates moments and phrases you can understand being called back to throughout the couple’s time together. The real strength of these repeated lines and allusions to past events is that they work both as call-backs and as foreshadowing, depending on what order you see the scenes in.
Lennox, most recently taking over from Jessie Buckley in Cabaret, is both a gifted comedienne and a strong dramatic actress. She finds the charm and humour in Sarah’s sometimes condescending, know-it-all persona – it could be difficult, in a less skilled performer’s hands, to see why Molly would fall for Sarah, but with Lennox in the role it’s easy to see the loveable and caring woman behind the snark and eyerolls. Her chemistry with Olive Gray is also electrifying – both the tender, sensual connection between the pair and their tempestuous, vengeful arguments feel real, painful, and captivating.
Gray, of Paramount+’s Halo, clearly has fun in the
earlier (chronologically speaking) scenes, where the younger Molly gets to be almost a manic pixie dream girl in her exuberance and seeming to exist to bring Sarah out of her neurotic shell. Later (again, chronologically) when the plotline darkens, they are given ample opportunity to show that they are a match for Lennox’s dramatic prowess. Their charisma radiates and their frustrations and desperation ring utterly true – a delicate balance they prove more than capable of handling.
The production’s director, Lucy Jane Atkinson, has made stellar use of her performers and her stage. Body language is utilised skilfully and carefully, telling us enough about the characters and their feelings toward one-another at any given time that no matter which scene they open with we can quickly fill in the blanks. As Lennox and Gray move around and alongside each other, Atkinson makes it perfectly clear how connected they do or no not feel at that moment. Atkinson has also helped smooth the potentially awkward process of having six different scenes potentially be the opener – between her careful use of emotion and movement, and Barry’s malleable dialogue, there is little risk of a scene feeling out of place.
In this studio space, the work of lighting designer Holly Ellis and sound designer Anna Short doesn’t get as many moments to shine as fully as it could – both, though, do solid work here and do help to elevate the piece. Subtle changes in lighting allow for the constant sense of movement that goes with the scenes taking place in a myriad of locales, whereas background sounds help to flesh out the scene we imagine happening around the two actors. Bethia Jane Green’s set lends itself beautifully to these simple but effective shifts, with the colour-blocked walls being bright and inviting when used as a happy home, but quickly dulled by the dimming of Ellis’s lights where a sombre tone is needed. While more could be done in future productions to alter the staging between scenes, the lack of a backstage passage in this studio space would make such re-dressing awkward if attempted at Riverside.
Pulled together by two stunning performances and their commanding, intimate chemistry, Spy for Spymanages the difficult task of pulling off a difficult gimmick while also working as a straightforward play. There is a 1 in 720 chance of an audience seeing the linear work, from chronological beginning to chronological end, and they would still see a strong and enjoyable romantic dramedy, albeit much less in line with the theme of memory’s reconstructed nature.
Some will get hung up on the familiarity of many of the plot beats, and it is initially easy to get lost in the story – my mind, I noticed quickly, was so used to the opening scene being the first meeting that I took several minutes before realising I was watching a reconnection months later. Still, the strength and sureness of the text and direction quickly pulled me back on track, and the sizzling tension between these two actors alone is worth the price of admission.
Spy for Spy plays at Riverside Studios until July 2nd
For tickets and information visit https://riversidestudios.co.uk/see-and-do/spy-for-spy-57989/
Photos by Ben Ealovega
The Spy for Spy Playlist is made up of the following songs:
(The sequence below is the order selected at random on 20/06/2023)
- "You Won't Forget Me" - Helen Merrill (prologue)
- "Hypotheticals" - Lake Street Drive
- "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" - Stars
- "HYD" - Hayley Williams
- "Cosmic Girl" - Jamiroquai
- "Dress" - PJ Harvey
- "You Won't Forget Me" - Helen Merrill (epilogue)