Watching a two-handed play about a couple meeting, falling in and out of love seems to offer little to get excited about, but Kieron Barry‘s new work, Spy For Spy, premiering at the Riverside Studios, has a trick up its sleeve to prove that wrong.
The play is made up of six scenes over the course of one relationship between Sarah and Molly, topped and tailed with a prologue and an epilogue. But what gives this play its uniqueness is that the order of the six scenes is chosen at random by the audience before the play begins. This theatrical shuffling of scenes means that there are potential 720 versions of Spy for Spy.
This is no mere gimmick. It has a profound effect on the feel of the play and how the audience receives it. The play begins, in the prologue, with Sarah sitting alone. “Alexa, play Sarah and Molly’s playlist – shuffle” she requests, echoing the non-linear nature of the work. And the first scene (chosen by the audience, in the case of the Press Night by the Editor of the Recs) begins accompanied by the playlist song associated with that particular scene.
Each scene is a self-contained vignette from their relationship, each a moment in time at different stages of their romance. It would be wrong to describe what happens in any of them as we could be spoiling the ending…or the beginning! Each scene is tonally different, reflecting the prevailing mood of the pair. Therefore a scene might be flirtatious, fractious, messy or even heartbreaking. As you watch the play, you begin to map out the timeline of events. Only when the sixth scene is played do you appreciate what would have been the linear chronology.
Just as an album has a defined track order, when you hit shuffle you can often find something rewarding or illuminating in the new juxtaposition of two tracks. So too will Spy for Spy find new meanings with scenes changing order every time it plays.
Kudos must go to both actors. Until moments before the play begins, they won’t know how the story will unfold that performance. With only a lighting change and the next song on the playlist, both will need to move emotionally from one scene to the next. On Press Night, our third scene was the show’s gut-punch which had many audience members in tears. To go from such an emotional, dark moment into the breezy, carefree vibe of the next scene demonstrated that Amy Lennox and Olive Gray are performers of the highest calibre.
Lennox plays Sarah, an uptight Californian lawyer. Controlled yet impulsive, needy but controlling, she has an unpredictable emotional volatility. In lesser hands, Sarah could easily but irritating or even dislikable, but Lennox skilfully humanises her character and all her foibles. Her performance is so packed with carefully-observed nuances, that we have no choice but to root for Sarah as she has to face vicissitudes for which she believes she is ill-equipped. Put simply, Lennox gives a truly memorable performance.
Gray plays Molly, a Californian would-be actor. She’s a free-spirited dreamer with a dry playful sense of humour. In contrast to Sarah’s privileged upbringing, Molly’s family background has been challenging. Gray is a very natural and versatile performer. We believe in their youthful exuberance, just as we are convinced by their anger when they lash out.
Lennox and Gray have terrific chemistry together, fully capturing the push and pull of relationships. Along with Barry’s deft scripting, the two make Sarah and Molly’s chalk and cheese relationship not simply believable but one that audiences want to succeed. Declarations such as “I don’t know who I am anymore because of you” resonate truthfully as Lennox and Gray compel us to emotionally invest in their characters.
Credit must also go to the often unsung heroes of the theatre world: the stage management. Nell Thomas and Amy Moore have the unique task of setting the props in a completely different order each night, something that would have many a stage manager running to the hills in horror.
Spy for Spy works better than most memory plays because of its inherent randomness. Too often in such works, recollections are so carefully curated to lose all verisimilitude. Here, the scene shuffling lends an authenticity to the process of recalling by its lack of manipulation. One thought or memory jostles with another for prominence.
Watching Spy For Spy, you will laugh out loud, you will be drawn into the drama and you may cry. But not necessarily in that order. Kieron Barry has created a fascinating and evocative look at a relationship that has a sense of truthfulness rarely felt in dramas with similar subject matter. The honesty of Amy Lennox and Olive Gray’s performances will make you want to watch Spy for Spy again. The show’s cunning scene shuffling will make that urge to return irresistible.
Now it and Go See. Let’s try that again. It and Now See Go. Oh work it out yourself…
★★★★★ 5 Stars