4 November 2021
In his 1966 novel ‘The Comedians’, Graham Greene set a story of ‘innocents abroad’ against a background of the brutal dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier on the island of Haiti. By turns the novel is amusing, violent and disturbing. As a prelude to that tale, ‘Our Man in Havana’ (written in 1958) takes a similar path, but is a far lighter affair, while pointing the finger, this time, at the pre-revolutionary state of Cuba. He also takes the British establishment (and the secret services in particular) to task; he had a number of issues with the UK’s policy towards the Caribbean island and along with a barrage of letters to the Foreign Office, he penned this novel.
Clive Francis is a consummate actor and caricaturist, his adaptations of well-known novels are packed with wit, fun and invention. This 2006 version is written to be performed by four actors and is far more tricky than it might at first appear on the printed page. The actors narrate and, in all but one of the cases, play multiple parts, flitting from role to role while still getting across the story of vacuum cleaner salesman Jim Wormold and his accidental entry into the world of espionage and the sleazy underworld of Cuba.
Playing Up Theatre Company’s production takes the audience across to sunnier climes and tackle the script with great enthusiasm. Very effective projections and lighting are complemented by the unmistakable soundtrack of Cuban songs and music. The story passes from location to location and the cast move the props and all-purpose furniture around the stage to illustrate this. It is a shame that with the excellent background, the very utilitarian furniture and props aren’t slightly more in keeping with the period and setting of the story.
The actors work their socks off; throwing on a hat there, a jacket there and a long blond wig where required; slipping from character to character with ease. It is a great chance for demonstrating versatility; there is much fun to be had here and the performers are well up for it.
The success of the format of the script is momentum. The pace needs to be maintained throughout whilst ensuring the narrative is not lost in the dizzying array of characters and scenes. This is only partially achieved. Some of the delivery is a little ponderous and cues are slow to be picked up; tightening this will definitely be a plus.
Tim Carter is wide-eyed, awkward and wonderfully innocent as Jim Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman who is caught up in the farcical goings-on. This actor has an excellent, clear voice and he catches the vulnerability of the character well. Anne Hipperson takes on multiple roles from Jim’s teenage daughter to his later love interest; though a little quiet at times, she commits to each character well. Jack Strawbridge also juggles a number of parts; occasionally his voice falls below the level of audibility and some throwaway lines are lost completely. A simple issue to correct. James Coy displays an array of accents in his portfolio of shady figures and does so with gusto. The cast is completed by a splendidly effective puppet dog, Max – well manipulated by Charlie Schofield.
The story narrative is occasionally lost amidst the toings and froings and maybe the satirical edge to the story is not highlighted as much as it could be, but Director, Darian Nelson, takes a challenging script and brings it to life with a hard-working cast and crew. The comic moments can be pushed even further; there are plenty of them and require a tad more punch and with more pace and attack to the vocals this will be an even more effective production.
This review was written for Sardines Magazine