PACK OF LIES – Manor Pavilion Theatre, Sidmouth


4 September 2023




The Portland Spy Ring operated in the 1950s and early 1960s; a highly successful group of spies working for Russia filtering British military secrets to the Kremlin. The final breaking of the Ring and the subsequent arrest of those involved is the basis for Hugh Whitemore’s play ‘Pack of Lies’, first performed in 1983 and starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams.

The Jackson Family, Bob, Barbara and their daughter Julie live a quiet life in Ruislip, West London until one day when they are called upon to help in the unmasking of some of the spies – who happen to be their neighbours and best friends – the story is by and large true and a certain amount based on the recollections of the real-life ‘Julie’ the journalist and ‘Gardeners World’ presenter, Gay Search.

Whitemore is possibly best known for his tremendous play about Alan Turing, ‘Breaking the Code’ – seen at Sidmouth in 2022 – so we are in familiar territory to an extent. The over-riding joy of seeing these plays on stage is the beauty and simplicity of the writing, but also the depth of the characters and the many layers used to tell a very good story.

Jason Moore’s production is outstanding. It is one thing to have a good script, but that script needs a good cast and a guiding hand to bring out every nuance, keep the pace moving, offer up the drama and keep the tension stretched for as long as possible. Here Moore succeeds on every level. The play needs nothing showy, nothing more than what is offered by the writer and this production does just that.

Andrew Beckett’s set incorporates two rooms, a hallway and stairs and three doors and it is dressed to perfection. It is so authentic and looks entirely inhabitable. Along with the excellent costume designs of Jan Huckle, you just know what era you are in.

The Jackson family are performed with great skill by all three actors. Steve Blacker-Barrowman’s Bob is a masterpiece of underplaying, but the subtlety of the acting, the vulnerability beneath the surface and the connection with Barbara is tremendous. His delivery of the final speech is as perfect as you get and it breaks your heart. The arc of the role of Barbara is gentle as it is dramatic, the happy wife and mum who bows under the pressure of her own sense of betrayal; all perfectly captured by Bridget Lambert in a performance full of depth and emotional honesty. Katherine Dodds is excellent in the small but very vital role of Julie, the fun-loving, optimistic daughter; her outburst towards the end hits you in the pit of the stomach. The conflict of loyalties and friendships is laid out in stark detail and it is admirably portrayed.

The neighbours and friend, the Krogers – both of whom were eventually regarded as heroes in Russia and featured in postage stamps in the 1980s – provide other challenges to an actor – the challenge of concealment.  As the brash, loud and foul-mouthed Helen, Hilary Harwood exudes a charming eccentricity, but when the moment comes the mask falls and the steeliness of the real-life Lona Cohen can be seen. Likewise as Peter Kroger, the bookish, sensible, quieter husband, James Pellow shows the layers of the character with an ease, but with a chilliness which is uncomfortable. The two actors excel in their portrayals.

Mild-mannered, softly spoken and considerate, there is also another side to Stewart, the top civil servant investigating the spy ring, and Simon Chappell displays these in exemplary fashion. Despite his friendly demeanour you are left in no doubt that his word is final. His two assistants, Sally played by Holly Ashman and Thelma by Rachel Fletcher-Hudson provide fine support – the scene between Barbara and Thelma in Act Two is played with great sensitivity by the actors and digs at the emotions.

This is a first-rate cast and the audience is offered a consummate display of acting skills.

Throughout the play, Whitemore uses short monologues from the characters which also provide transitions between scenes. Moore handles these to great effect; a chilling soundscape accompanies the monologues and the scenes melt from one to another with ease. As staging goes you couldn’t want for more.

This is a brilliant play and a brilliant production. It is the best of this year’s Summer Season… far…and it is a treat for those who love a riveting story wonderfully realised. Go buy a ticket now, you won’t regret it!


Cast & Creatives

Bob Jackson – Steve Blacker-Barrowman

Barbara Jackson – Bridget Lambert

Julie Jackson – Katherine Dodds

Helen Kroger – Hilary Harwood

Peter Kroger – James Pellow

Stewart – Simon Chappell

Thelma – Rachel Fletcher-Hudson

Sally – Holly Ashman


Writer – Hugh Whitemore

Director – Jason Moore

Design – Andrew Beckett

Lighting & Sound Operation & Design – Stage Tech Services

Costume Designer – Jan Huckle

Set Builders – Henry Hayward, James Prendergast

Set Assistant – Dominic McChesney

Deputy Stage Manager – Daniel Saint

Image – Andrew Beckett

Artistic Director – Paul Taylor-Mills

Season Associate Producer – Andrew Beckett

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