Fun with espionage: Our Man In Havana, a review

Mark Meer, Ian Leung, Belinda Cornish in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The turquoise paint is fading picturesquely, the shuttered windows are open, laundry is hanging, the light feels warm. Musica cubana is in the air.

Batista’s Havana in the ‘50s — as conjured festively by designers Chantel Fortin (set), Paul Morgan Donald (sound), and Matt Currie (lighting) …. What could go wrong?

“Fiendish, isn’t it?,” says the head of MI6 in London, gravely reviewing the latest, alarmingly illustrated reports from their new recruit in the Cuban capital. “I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon….”

Graham Greene called his unusually light-hearted 1958 espionage satire Our Man In Havana an “entertainment” to distinguish it from his weightier, more lugubrious tomes. And Bright Young Things production of the pedestrian stage adaptation by Brit actor Clive Francis  — which launches the new Varscona Theatre Ensemble series — takes up that spirit. It is highly entertaining. And the largeness of the entertainment value is directly tied to the smallness of the cast, and its expertise.

Ian Leung, Mark Meer, Mathew Hulshof in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things, Varscona Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

Si, amigos, the rocketing complications in the life of a hapless English ex-pat vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba, recruited by British Intelligence before he even knows what’s happening, are chronicled by a quartet of expert comic actors (thereby answering the perennial question of how many actors does it take to…?).  A: one (Ian Leung) to play Mr. Wormold and three (Belinda Cornish, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer) to populate his world, on both sides of the Atlantic, with 31 other characters. In the course of the evening you will see policemen, bartenders, waiters, merchants, Havana showgirls, secret agents, killers, Cuban assistant sales personnel, intelligence brass, bank tellers … did I mention nuns?

It is the comical extremity of this mathematically improbable activity, in a Kate Ryan production both ingenious and shameless — a veritable circus of flying costume pieces and wigs (designer: Pat Burden) — that makes for the theatrical fun. It’s so very NOT a movie, from the moment that the three quick-changers, in a dance opener, spit up the introductory narrative. “Hope seemed as hopeless as trying to sell vacuum cleaners in Havana….”

Mr. Wormold’s recruiter Hawthorne is played with an amusingly unfazable armour of louche Englishness by Hulshof, among his many assignments. “Absolutely,” he says crisply to the proffered buenos dias (“ebb-sol-yute-leh”).  Hawthorne’s minimal interest in vacuum cleaners is reduced still further by Mr. Wormold’s earnest attempts to engage it. “You don’t say. Fascinating.”

The new Brit secret agent 59200/5 is recruited. And Mr. Wormold, perennially strapped for cash thanks to the pricey shopping proclivities of his spoiled airhead teenaged daughter Milly (Cornish), finds himself scrambling to fabricate contacts and especially their expense sheets, and send off to London those rather terrifying reports of military installations. Funny how the weapons of mass destruction — giant tanks, and the two-way nozzles — have a disconcerting resemblance to the inner workings of a Hoover. 

Belinda Cornish, Ian Leung in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

As the unprepossessing PhastKleaner rep, Leung starts with a shlepper’s perplexity, which escalates into glints of dawning realization and and mounting anxiety about being exposed as a fraud with a soupçon of tiny satisfaction in his new ill-fated importance. 

This combo will escalate into a riptide of out-and-out panic in the course of Our Man In Havana. Mr. Wormold’s fictions start turning into reality. And his contacts with the Cuban chief of police, Captain Segura, he of the wallet made of human skin,  played with sinister suavity by Meer, are increasingly frequent and menacing. His perfectly calm explanation of the class system — the torturable and the untorturable — captures to a T the dry humour of the Greene novel.  May I single out Meer’s Lopez, an assistant at the vacuum cleaner shop who is both deferential and resolutely stubborn about retaining his preconceptions about his boss? 

Mathew Hulshof, Belinda Cornish, Ian Leung in Our Man In Havana, Bright Young Things. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

  That’s the thing about Our Man In Havana: the routine stage adaptation turns Greene’s satire, mostly at the expense of British Intelligence, into self-spoofing high-speed farce (à la Patrick Barlow’s more accomplished version of The 39 Steps). But the actors under Ryan’s direction apply serious comic dexterity to creating vivid characters. Except, of course, when they just go shamelessly for broke: I’m thinking of Hulshof, fully clothed and be-wigged as a stripper in the Shanghai Club and Meer, fully clothed and be-crowned, as a regal personage whose presence is the capper to the evening. There is, as well, a dog. But we can’t get into that here.

Cornish is very droll as the ruthlessly manipulative, very Catholic daughter who is delighted that everything you pray for you get. And as Beatrice, the secretary sent by London to assist Mr. Wormwold in his important work for Her Majesty’s government, she is delightful, a reasonable and competent person in a crazy world.

It’s fun to see what accomplished comic actors, game-ready all four, make of this material, under a director who joins the comedy to witty theatre jokes, without larding them on too much. They are precise, they are agile, and they turn a funny premise into a sparkling entertainment. 

See 12thnight.ca preview interview with Cornish and Meer:

REVIEW

Our Man In Havana

Varscona Theatre Ensemble

Theatre: Bright Young Things

Written by: Graham Greene, adapted by Clive Francis

Directed by: Kate Ryan

Starring : Ian Leung, Belinda Cornish, Mathew Hulshof, Mark Meer

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Dec. 2

Tickets: varsconatheatre.com   

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