Pack of Lies

‘Pack of Lies’ is a superbly crafted 1983 play by English writer and screenwriter, Hugh Whitemore. It is based on the true story of two Americans spying for the Russians in London in 1961.

Whitemore, who was on the RADA staff, was renowned for dramatising the gay life of Alan Turing, the cryptographer who cracked the Enigma Code, and writing about Sir Winston Churchill’s troubled marriage with Clementine just before the war. Whitemore began his writing career with British television, scripting both original television plays and adaptations of classic works by Charles Dickens, W. Somerset Maugham, and Charlotte Brontë.  For this, he won a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain award twice. He also wrote the 1971 ‘Elizabeth R’ episode ‘Horrible Conspiracies’ for the BBC.

‘Pack of Lies’ was adapted from the BBC series Play of the Month episode ‘Act of Betrayal’ which was transmitted in 1971. The play had its Premiere in Brighton, and Whitemore went on to win two Golden Globes, three Primetime Emmys and three TV Baftas.

Whitemore’s film scripts included Man at the Top, All Creatures Great and Small, and 84 Charing Cross Road. In 1987, he wrote a draft of an adaptation of this play for an American television production. He quit the production, so the shooting script was written by Jeffrey Sweet – billed as a “creative consultant.” Whitemore was angry with this poor version and so exercised the right to have the script credited to a pseudonym, Ralph Gallup.

He died four years ago, aged 82.

in real life, Bob and Barbara were Bill and Ruth Search; their daughter Julie in the play is now Gay Search, a television reporter and personality. Judi Dench and her husband, Michael Williams were first to play the Jacksons on stage.

This first-class dynamic production of ‘Pack of Lies’ is now being presented by Limelight Theatre, on Civic Drive in Wanneroo. The performances are on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights until the 1st of October. There is one matinee at 2.00 pm on Sunday 25th September.

Most theatres have now gone to a 7.30 start time as this is preferred by older audience members, young actors and those travelling a good distance to see the show. What do you think?

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Scene:                   June 1960 in Ruislip (pronounced Rye slip) an area next to Harrow in west London. A family home.

The Set: A huge amount of research has gone into this superb set to ensure it is accurate for 1960. The sitting room has a tan feature wall with a large picture window and gold curtains. Through the window, across the road, can be seen two semi-detached houses (terrific work by scenic artists Ursula Kotara and Tina Harper. This couple is earning an admirable reputation for their stunning theatrical external landscapes. Being pedantic and petty, perhaps a slight thin wash of white over the finished picture could make it look further away?).

The pale grey wallpaper of the loungeroom is stencilled with a tan geometric pattern – so popular for the day. The rustic tiled fireplace had a live fire blazing. The carpet is a pale grey. At the rear of the stage, all in white is the front door, a passageway, and a staircase up to the bedrooms. There is a hall table with a telephone. To the right of the stage is a kitchenette with pale apple-green paintwork. The floor has trendy yellow and blue 30 cm linoleum tiles. There is an electric oven, fridge, and sink with a draining board. When the back door opened a trellis could be seen (not the usual unlit black drape). This was a SPECIAL set.

Set design and construction:       Gordon Park, Richard Tudge, RJ Smolders, Dave Browning, Andrew Brown, Roger Oakes, Neville Harlow, Lorraine Jones, and Ian Jones. The minimal, 30 cm high wall between the rooms worked very well and was unobtrusive from any audience viewing angle.

Properties:          Lorraine Jones has worked hard. There is a brass fire screen and fire tool companion set, an art easel, and an electric sewing machine. The three-piece lounge suite was a soft-covered Chesterfield with gold striped upholstery. A beautiful small teak drum table. The homeowner’s artwork is displayed on the walls. The mantlepiece had a clock and various family treasures. This whole set was alive and lived in, brilliant.

Lighting Design:                Ashlee Torrens and Vince Haines gave us an equally lit stage, with no blind shadowed areas. Small extras like the lit Christmas tree and subtle changes for the time of day. A very slight (hardly noticeable) occasional flicker, is there a dirty master fader? Or perhaps nearing an overload? Congratulations for lighting the scene outside the window, so often the backdrop relies on stray light from inside. Good work.

Lighting Operator:           Tom Melanko, smooth work.

Sound Design:   Paul King and sound operator Richard Tudge gave us a great selection of 60’s music from the Zombies to Donovan. The phone ring sounded genuine and not a clipped poor recording.

Stage manager:                 RJ Smolders, with the stage crew of Lorraine Jones, Helen Tudge and Julie Clark were highly efficient. With the very low lighting between scenes, I was often totally unaware that the crew had been on stage.

Costumes:           Julie Clark and Joan Braskic hit the mark perfectly. The outfits brought a smile to my face, the coats – stylish a white padded minicoat, a trench coat and bright plastic! – and motorcycle outfits. You set the era perfectly.

In the quiet suburb of Ruislip (only metres from TV actor Richard Briers’ house) live a pleasant, middle-aged English couple, the Jacksons. Bob (Chris Juckes) is a Civil Service naval engineer and his wife, Barbara (Fiona Forster) earns a bob or two from dressmaking. They have been in their house for decades. Their teenage daughter, Julie (Lara Simpson – an assured performance) is a typical self-willed young lady.

There is a knock on the door, and it is their two favourite neighbours and close friends from 45 Cranley Drive. An antique book dealer Peter Kroger (Gordon Park) and his Canadian wife Helen Kroger (Kezia George) have arrived with Barbara’s birthday present. A few days later they get a telephone call from a policeman, Superintendent Smith asking them if one of his staff, Mr. Stewart (Andrew Brown) could call around.

It seems their visitor, Mr Stewart could be part of the British Secret Service, who are trying to track a man called Lonsdale. Stewart eventually talks the Jacksons into allowing two of his young female staff, motorbike-riding Thelma (Natalie Wiles) and quiet, shy Sally (Ada Ritchin) into using Julie’s bedroom for observation – no risk involved!

When I saw Director Gordon Parks on the cast list I worried; how can an actor see how they are performing? But experienced trouper Gordon acted his reticent role and directed immaculately. Much of his part as Peter Kroger was giving his monologue. Between Acts, each actor took turns at standing on the stage apron to give a brief monologue. This idea worked well. Kezia’s curious flamboyant personality filled the stage.

The success of this play depends upon slightly underplaying the characters. The Jacksons came across as a quiet homely couple, completely out of their depth whilst stunned and confused by what was taking place. It is said that ‘lying is a virulent disease that saps patriots and traitors alike of their humanity’ and in a very moving final scene, Fiona proved this quote to be highly true. Even Mr Stewart was quietly ‘matter of fact’ with no urgency, yet surreptitiously in full control of the household.

Although the play seems to plod along at a relaxed tempo, thanks to the fantastic writing, the dialogue was natural and gripping, with the pace and tension increasing slowly as the production progressed.

Fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. A top-class production in all departments. Suitable for all ages.