Trafalgar Studios, London SW1
Opened 22 November, 2005

Despite its new name, the main space in what used to be the Whitehall Theatre is not what one normally thinks of as a studio venue. At just under 400 seats, Trafalgar Studio 1 (currently housing Owen McCafferty's Shoot The Crow) is scarcely smaller than fellow West End houses the Duchess and the Fortune, and half as big again as the Donmar Warehouse; its amphitheatrical layout may seem more intimate to those onstage than those in much of the auditorium. However, after 18 months on its own, it has now been joined by the 100-seat Studio 2, filling a palpable gap in the West End. (Of the fringe-sized venues in London's Theatreland, the Jermyn Street Theatre is increasingly given over to small-scale musical productions, and the new Sound Theatre is both bigger and not yet settled in its identity.) Trafalgar Studio 2's opening season includes a couple of transfers from the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe, a Christmas show coming in from Wimbledon, the return of a successful solo adaptation of a book by Michael Morpourgo, and for its opening production hosts what I believe is the first visit to London by Mull Theatre from the Hebrides.

Peter Arnott's play Cyprus is a taut, intelligent three-hander set in the Mull house of a more or less retired intelligence spook, Brian Traquair. He and his pugnacious daughter Alison find themselves playing host to one of Traquair's former protégés, Brian Griffen, who repeatedly claims to have run into "a spot of bother" but who both father and daughter suspect is nosing around for Traquair's unacknowledged intelligence work on Iraq and so forth. Arnott's script guides him through his own debut as a director; the various vectors of who really means what to whom (of course, Griffen and Alison have a sexual history, back in her teens on Cyprus, hence the title) are played out with a Le Carré-like understatement, anchored by Sandy Neilson's gnomic central performance as Traquair. Its principal concern, though, is of course the intelligence climate itself. Both investigative rigour and principle have gone by the board, as torture, pragmatic alliances and the commercialisation of national and international intelligence gain the ascendant. No-one's hands are clean, not even the apparent old-school paragon Traquair not even his supposedly uninvolved daughter. It's an adept bit of work, and it can only be to the good that the West End now has a space to accommodate it and pieces of a similar scale.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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