Review: Ciphers, Bush Theatre ✭✭✭✭

‘Kareem is like… a small dog that needs training. You have to figure out what to do to get him jumping through hoops. Does he need a treat? Or a beating?’ This is just one of the cool quips in this smart and stimulating play by Dawn King, and one that is reflective of the running theme of manipulation. Ciphers, running up until the 8th February at the Bush Theatre, is a spy thriller that will keep you on your toes, as you find yourself immersed in a mystery comprised of double agents and double lives.

The stark set creates the perfect stage for the cool, clear-headed characters and its minimalism means that nothing detracts from the intensity of the story and the excellence of the acting. Smart, creative direction and flexible design transforms several simple boxes on the stage into screens, desks and benches, and manages to absorb the audience into a believable world.

Shereen Martin, Grainne Keenan, Bruce Alexander and Ronny Jhutti make up a superb cast, and the doubled-up roles show the diversity of their abilities. Shereen Martin in particular shone in her two polar-opposite roles as the astute and composed senior intelligence officer, Sunita, and as Anoushka, the spoilt, insecure arts-snob girlfriend of artist, Kai. The transformation between roles was smooth and impressive, but most of all believable – Alexander and Keenan went from being a father and daughter in a scene where Alexander’s character, Peter, is recovering from a heart attack to Russian co-workers embarking in fierce love-making over an office desk.

The switches between roles added a sometimes dream-like quality between scenes, as we were swept from the past to the present effortlessly. The use of sound and lighting contributed to this and produced some beautiful scenes; one of the more memorable being when Kerry wakes up in Kai’s bed and pads around the room – absorbed in her thoughts. In silence, she lights a cigarette and no words are needed as we sit tensely, considering her next movements in a game that has suddenly become very dangerous for her to keep playing.

A spy thriller is not something you would come to expect on the stage, but Ciphers is utterly enthralling theatre. Reminiscent of a movie in its theme and delivery, it confidently guides the audience through its hoops, twists and turns – and for inquisitive theatre-goers, it most certainly is a treat.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 8th February 2014
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