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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Ciphers
Bush Theatre January-February 2014

Part spy story, part romance, part whodunit, with each strand developing into a morality tale in the dangers of getting in beyond your depth, Dawn King's new play has much to intrigue and hold your interest. But as it moves into too-familiar genre territory, its complexities, ambiguities and unresolved loose ends may prove more annoying than entertaining. 

The play watches a young woman named Justine begin to work for one of Britain's security services, beginning as a clerk and then moving up to running an unwilling civilian source and eventually to field work on her own, while also getting involved in a romance with a married man. Then she is killed, and her sister tries to track down the truth of her murder. 

To compound the mystery, King tells the story in a string of short scenes out of chronological order, so that the sister's adventure begins before Justine's ends, and episodes from Justine's later assignments come before she's finished the earlier ones. And to compound it further, everyone in the cast of four doubles roles, the same actress, for example, playing both sisters. 

What we discover in all the play's plot strands is a world in which everyone lies, everyone betrays, everyone serves at least two masters, so that it is never possible to be sure of anyone's motives, honesty, loyalty or, ultimately, identity, and what we see with our own eyes is very likely not what it appears.

(We ultimately do learn about Justine's death, which seems to involve the least significant other character for the most banal of motives, until a few final hints suggest the possibility of a half-dozen alternative explanations.) 

In short, we are deep in John Le Carré territory, a view of the spying world as so basically and inescapably dishonest that some truths are unattainable and even its most able practitioners can only operate on the hope that they're accidentally getting it right. 

And those who have never read or seen a Le Carré novel - which may include many in the Bush's young audience – will be fascinated by this nihilistic vision, while those who have will find themselves losing interest as King's version makes clear that she has nowhere to take us that we haven't been before in the hands of a more skilled – i.e., less prone to loose ends – writer. 

It may well be part of director Blanche McIntyre's intention to add to the levels of mystification that her actors don't always distinguish between their doubled roles, so that we spend the opening moments of each scene figuring out who they are this time. But it can begin to be annoyingly distracting, and leaves open the speculation that what we're seeing are just the limitations of their acting ability. 

Gráinne Keenan differentiates between the sisters largely by putting on and taking off a leather jacket, which you might not notice for a while. Ronny Jhutti tells us who he's playing by putting on and taking off a hat, and Shereen Martin and Bruce Alexander by putting on and taking off Russian accents.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Ciphers - Bush Theatre 2014

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