JAlthough equivocal on many aspects of religion, Graham Greene had almost supernatural gifts of prophecy as a novelist. The Quiet American (1955) provided a spooky insight into the American disaster in Vietnam. Three years later, Our Man in Havana, in which an English expatriate vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba sells fake secrets to MI6 for cash, was a spy prank that got serious with Iraq’s ‘dodgy dossier’ and other fuzzy facts and fabrications. The heir to Greene’s spy fiction, John le Carré, admired Our Man in Havana so much that he wrote an acclaimed tribute in The Tailor of Panama.
In their musical version, presented as a world premiere at the picturesque and enterprising Watermill, Richard Hough (book and lyrics) and Ben Morales Frost (music), pay attention to both the topicality of the story on the unreliability of the information and the literary heritage channel. One of the strongest songs, The Perfect Spy, alluding to a Le Carré title, nicely honors two of England’s greatest writers on public and private deception.
The score is geographically two-tone – mambo and rumba rhythms for the locals, like The Streets of Havana twice covered – and Noël Cowardly recitative and glib for Nigel Lister’s flawed spy, James Wormold. As Milly, the teenager whose shopping and horse-riding bills lead her divorced father to trade lies, Daniella Agredo Piper moves appropriately between musical dual nationalities.
The performers deserve an ensemble award for their amazing versatility. Lister accompanies with the double bass or the guitar the few scenes where he is not. Quickly swinging between the roles of a Whitehall spymaster and a Cuban secret policeman, Adam Keast also finds time for strings and percussion. Paula James plays two contrasting women, plus guitar and drums. On the small stage, Abigail Pickard Price’s careful direction somehow prevents anyone from being jabbed by a bow, drumstick or the quick-change bits of Kat Heath’s ingenious set, in which the pianos suddenly become urinals, bookcases or cars.
As is often the case with new musicals, it feels another rigorous workshop away from becoming the absolute fun accessible. In the second half, the book contains too much romance: Greene’s grand scene of a game of checkers with spirit miniatures as pieces is oddly spoken, not sung. But while the novel is dated in some ways — its first line of dialogue contains the n-word — this show nicely and cleverly distills Greene’s enduring truths about lying.