Al Blyth’s spiralling spy thriller The Haystack is essentially Johnny English meets Bodyguard. Our protagonist, socially awkward, video game-loving tech whizz Neil (Oliver Johnstone) has at times a humorous ineptitude not too dissimilar from Atkinson’s clumsy operative. An employee at GCHQ, he soon finds himself entangled in a relationship when asked to monitor Guardian investigative journalist Cora Preece (Rona Morison) – hence the Bodyguard comparison.
Like with any spy drama, there is a need to suspend disbelief, to an extent. A personal favourite is an article by Cora being given the title ‘Technology and loneliness’, one of a couple of news headlines shown in the drama which don’t really do well to replicate The Guardian’s house style.
From IT geek to depressed, alcoholic journalist, The Haystack leans too far into clichés and overused ideas on surveillance to offer anything particularly new or groundbreaking. While self-aware at times, Guardian exposés (like Edward Snowden) and operatives growing attached to their subjects have both been done before – either in real life or works of fiction. What new ideas does the play offer to an already oversaturated genre?
In essence, The Haystack is a plot of old ideas originally staged. Roxana Silbert’s pacy direction, with characters dashing between environments on Tom Piper’s set, or listening in from the sidelines, perfectly captures the blending and intertwining of Neil’s work and private life in a way which makes Johnstone’s portrayal of him as an uneasy individual all the more convincing. The same goes for Duncan McLean’s fascinating video design, throwing up articles and computer screens (a few of them with amusing Easter eggs) with the thrilling urgency of modern, online communication.
It is a tempo rivalled by a set of characters all stuck in a battle against their own organisations. Cora has to deal with her editor (Lucy Black) pushing back against her story on Saudi Arabia and Neil has to carefully navigate a relationship around an omniscient workplace and his friend Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) – the latter being an amusing ‘what my friend meant to say’ kind of friendship which involves some excellent chemistry between the duo.
Connections like these are well presented in the play, showing us a daunting, tangled web in Neil’s world, with a few genuinely shocking twists towards the end. One, fiercely acted by Morison, made me reconsider the otherwise painfully stereotypical character of Cora.
It is therefore a shame that the commentary in Blyth’s piece isn’t quite as intertwined in the narrative. Instead, curious thoughts on technology and surveillance are dictated to us in lengthy monologues which, although finely acted by Johnstone, Morison and others, come across as on-the-nose in their exposition.
In one such monologue, Quiz’s Sarah Woodward, who’s brilliant as another authority figure in the form of Neil’s boss Hannah, reveals ‘the haystack’ itself refers to the process of surveilling everyone to find the proverbial ‘needle’. As we follow Neil’s balancing act under a surveillance state, The Haystack may well be a fresh criticism of a system which causes harm in the interests of protection – if one were to dig deep enough into the text to find it.
The Haystack is now playing at Hampstead Theatre until 7 March.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch The Haystack for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this review. All opinions stated are honest and my own.