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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Haystack
Hampstead Theatre     January-March 2020

Playwright Al Blyth tries to squeeze a lot into his first full-length play. Remarkably, he almost succeeds, but eventually it just bursts at the seams and collapses.

A pair of computer nerds work for the government, tracking down security breaches. They trace a couple of leaks to a woman journalist and put her under surveillance.

One of the nerds becomes fascinated by her and starts cyber-watching her on his own, eventually falling for her and using what he knows about her to meet her and act like her dream man.

So we have a blend here of a few familiar plots, the obsessed stalker, the cop who falls for the suspect and the I-read-your-diary rom-com. And the play uneasily switches back and forth among them, so we're not always sure whether the guy is lovable, dangerous or just creepy.

At the same time that we're trying to sort out how we feel about what's going on, the play repeatedly backs away from the personal story to try to decide how it feels about modern-day surveillance.

While the case is strongly made for the need for information, what Blyth reports is that things are far worse than most paranoiacs can imagine. Not only does the government have the ability to listen to all phone calls and read all e-mails, but it can follow all Google searches, record all keystrokes, outwit any attempts at encryption and use our own cameras to watch us.

And it does, because one thing it can't do is spot the potential terrorists and focus on them, so it has to watch everyone. (The title alludes to the idea that to find the hidden needle you have to look through the entire haystack.)

The problem with The Haystack as a play is that the story of the obsessed nerd and the report on the extent of cyber-surveillance keep bumping into each other as they fight for our attention.

When the personal drama reaches an emotional high point it is inevitably interrupted by a scene involving the computer guy's boss or colleague in which we learn even more about privacy intrusions. And when we work to absorb that new revelation our attention is diverted back to the lovers.

Sometimes this dramatic tension can be very effective, as in a sequence in which the hero essentially carries on two conversations at once, reassuring the girl that she's safe with him while collaborating with his buddy on how to invade privacy more efficiently.

But too often, and increasingly toward the end, the play keeps threatening to spin out of control and break apart.

It is very much to the credit of the playwright and director Roxana Silbert that things hang together as long as they do, and that we always know where we are even when we are jumping between topics and levels.

Oliver Johnstone as the boy, Rona Morison as the girl and Enyi Okoronkwo as the fellow nerd lead a strong cast, some of them appearing only in the production's extensive use of projections and video effects.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Haystack - Hampstead Theatre 2020

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