Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Spyski, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: Spyski, Lyric Hammersmith

Written for Culture Wars, 23.10.2008

With their fast-paced, physical spoofs, Peepolykus have built a reputation for sharpshooting pastiche. Regularly selected for British Council showcases, they finally hit the West End two years ago with a much-lauded Hound of the Baskervilles. However, Spyski (or The Importance of Being Honest) – a potentially lethal concoction of espionage thriller and Oscar Wilde – has the hit ratio of an anonymous henchman.

During rehearsals for The Importance of Being Earnest, lead actor John Nicholson (John Nicholson) finds himself laid down with gastric flu and caught up in international intelligence operations. Passed a globe-trotting mission by a poisoned Russian agent (Javier Marzan), Nicholson must save the midlands from coerced compliance, get the girl and fend off an array of enemies by rescuing a genetically modified infant.

Spyski’s trick is that all this is covertly retold on the Lyric stage under the guise of Wilde’s comedy. Opening with Worthing and Algernon’s first exchange (played with a keen eye for stilted coattail-swishing amateurism), the play is interrupted by the blurting radio of an undercover MI5 operative whose noisy retreat gives space for the actors’ clandestine revolution.

However, this promising device is both underused and overplayed: instead of complicating the actors’ task with intrusion and confusion, it is relegated to framing a limp lampoon. The collision is left to the incongruity of set and action, as Russian oligarchs appear through French windows and palm trees appear in the parlour. Without Wilde, Spyski reduces to an easy target treated with an overdose of zaniness. Far too much is at the level of speedy costume changes and signposted gags, throwing up momentary guffaws rather than an escalating tumble of comedy.

Javier Marzan provides most of the laughs, exhibiting a destabilizing, dark playfulness almost entirely lacking in the polite comedy of his very British counterparts – only Richard Katz approaches it elsewhere in a show-stopping turn as a Chinese gangster as a slurred stereotype. Other than a brief caricature of a Katie Mitchell onstage film and the notion of Ronny Corbett golfing with the Bronski Beat, Spyski more closely resembles slack pantomime than slick parody.

Photograph: Peepolykus

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