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Review: Ciphers (Out of Joint)

 Cheltenham Everyman Theatre

“If you work here, you’ll never get recognition for it from anyone outside this building. The vast majority of the people in your life won’t know what you do. You’ll only ever be Clark Kent to the rest of the world, not Superman.”

Out of Joint’s production of Ciphers is a brand new play from Dawn King, a playful cerebral spy thriller. I use the term cerebral because King’s writing relies heavily on letting the audience do the work. This story of espionage is directed by Blanche McIntyre; her second production working with King after 2011‘s production of Foxfinder.

Ciphers follows a multinarrative, telling two stories parallel to each other, the tale of two sisters; Justine, an apparently plain young woman who works for the Secret Service; and Kerry, an art gallery manager who is leading a personal investigation into her sister’s life and mysterious death! That’s right, from the very beginning the audience is aware of how Justine’s story is going to end, but not why. And this is where the writing of Dawn King keeps her audience on the edge of their seats!

A small cast of four has each member multi-rolling, portraying two characters, one for each story. Griánne Keenan playing both sisters, and Ronny Jhutti, Shereen Martin and Bruce Alexander their own roles, respectively. In a play about identity the characterisation created by each actor is crucial to the storytelling, as initially there may be some confusion when one actor moves straight into the next scene as a different character, but this is very quickly cleared up once the premise of the two stories is established and we are able to recognise these characters and which sister’s life they are involved in and at what point.

James Perkins’ set design is an excellent addition to King’s world of espionage and conspiracy, together with Bowman’s lighting in creating a very clinical atmosphere where figures stand prominent against their background, and, as McIntyre was quoted (in a post-show Q&A at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre), “Illuminating a puzzle for the audience to get behind.”

Ciphers is a strong and intimate production. The focus of the audience is stolen from the start by the dialogue between the characters, and it is the consistency of intelligent conversation that the production rides upon with the help of a director and set design that can play around with it. There are extraordinary moments of silence too, which perform wonderfully as unspoken dialogue whenever they occur and adding to the tension of the story. McIntyre’s direction works beautifully throughout, especially in scene changes, and particularly in the first act, as they are very filmic – there is a smooth transition with characters and costume changes that occur behind a panel as it moves from one side of the stage to the other, swiping from one scene to the next and allowing the narrative to stay fluid.

There are a few scenes that are mostly spoken in Russian, and one that shows off some Japanese too; all foreign dialect spoken by the actors is highly disciplined, and I could say that anyone who does not speak these other languages would be hard pressed to guess whether they weren’t fluent. These particular scenes employed the use of surtitles, translating the Russian and Japanese dialogue, which added many moments of humour amid the rather dark and intense performance.

The production is layered. I have not used the terms multi-narrative and multi-rolling in this review lightly! My favourite moment in the entire play occurs right at the end, a moment that I had a great appreciation for, a real “gift” to the production, because of what it represented in relation to the rest of the story, but of course I cannot reveal what that is – you will have to go and see for yourself!

Ciphers is an Out of Joint production and currently on tour until early 2014. TM


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