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Safe House
Published on Thursday, 26 August 2010

3 stars

theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall (venue website)
23 - 28 Aug, 4:50pm (5:50pm)
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

Mixing live action with pre-recorded scenes isn’t that innovative any more; it’s been happening ever since video projectors became cheap enough for the average company to buy.  But few Fringe productions deliver as slickly-constructed an experience as Safe House, a Spooks-a-like spy-thriller romp set in the control room of a mysterious government agency.

There’s a genuine and urgent sense of reality about the video pieces.  Characters step out of a door, to appear on CCTV in the corridor outside; another “live” feed shows an agent pull out his mobile, and a phone starts to ring on stage.  It’s even more striking when the screens switch to show what’s on the operatives’ computer displays.  I’m not sure whether it’s down to technical wizardry or just hours and hours of rehearsals, but the tapping of fingers on the keyboards perfectly matches the appearance of writing on the screen.

Sadly though, the on-stage part of the story isn’t up to the high standard of the films.  It’s set in an office – albeit a rather unusual office – so it was always going to be a little bit static, and the problem’s exacerbated by some distinctly understated acting.  Most of the time, the live actors simply stand watching the screens as events unfold, patiently waiting for their cue; only when it’s their turn do we see any reaction at all, as though some unseen director has suddenly shouted “Go!”.  I don’t like to criticize individuals, but I’m bound to say that the section head, Ben, was a particular offender; there’s a role in this play for his cerebral and (given that he’s a British spy) intriguingly foreign persona, but it really isn’t this one.

It’s a shame that it didn’t quite work for me, because the storyline underpinning it all is really rather good.  In the great traditions of the genre, a shocking but minor initial incident turns out to be the opening shot of something far more.  Twist follows turn in a convincingly logical sequence, and the revelation when it comes is both credible and surprising; they’ve resisted the obvious temptation to pin it all on Bin Laden.  The characters are all stereotyped of course (the damaged ex-army medic, his hard-bitten girlfriend) but there’s no real criticism there – if it’s not what you wanted, you shouldn’t have bought a ticket for what’s transparently Spooks on stage.

In summary, Safe House is a technically-impressive work which ticks all the boxes of its chosen genre: the mystery, the tension, the vaguely implausible technology.  With a bit more tightness around the live scenes, it’ll be a stonker of a play.  In the meantime, if you’re a fan of such stories it’s still worth a look – the quality of the video production was exceptional, right through to the moment when, in place of a curtain-call, the end credits roll.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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