Review – Ciphers

Nov 14 2013 | By More


Shereen Martin as Sunita. Photo © Out of Joint

Shereen Martin as Sunita. Photo © Out of Joint

Traverse Theatre
Tue 12 – Sat 16 November 2013
Review by Thom Dibdin

Crisp and smart, Dawn King’s spy thriller for Out of Joint, which is at the Traverse all week, builds up a great head of steam as it follows the path of the once happy-go-lucky Kelly, now determined to discover the truth about the death of her sister.

The first half zings by, although on reflection it doesn’t quite find the meat it might for a truly satisfying ending, as it follows the sister, young and impressionable Justine, into the anonymous world of spooks.

With sliding walls running across the minimal set and confidently realistic dialogue, this feels every inch the contemporary thriller as the various strands of plot, set both before and after Justine’s death, are worked and woven round each other.

Each strand feels a whole and necessary separate entity. And as they are pulled together, they should build a bigger picture of the woman who, Kelly is beginning to discover, didn’t kill herself after all.

Yet in Grainne Keenan’s brilliant and closely observed performance as Justine, she remains an illusive character. She is malleable in every situation, whether it is with her controlling, frosty boss Sunita, her interrogation of potential informer, Kareem, or interview with Russian diplomat Koplov, she has a chameleon-like ability to blend in.

Only when she is being chatted up in Japanese by artist Kai – who is showing at the art gallery which Kelly runs – and in front of Kai’s unsuspecting wife Anoushka, does Justine’s own intellect and passion begin to show through, as she begins to flirt back.

It is a superb performance in itself, but it is one which Keenan quickly tops, as she plays the sister, Kelly, as well. And as Kelly runs into many of the same characters who were in Justine’s life, there is never any doubt which of the two Keenan is portraying.

The rest of the four-strong cast are equally clear in their doubling of characters, although they have no need to be as subtle. Shereen Martin is hard as nails and clearly repressing her own vulnerabilities as Sunita, but all at sea as Anoushka.

Events get increasingly murky
Ronny Jhutti (Kai), Shereen Martin (Anoushka) and Grainne Keenan (Justine). Photo © Out of Joint

Ronny Jhutti (Kai), Shereen Martin (Anoushka) and Grainne Keenan (Justine). Photo © Out of Joint

Ronny Jhutti has little to work with as the fairly functional character of youth worker Kareem, but is able to bring a bit more depth to the seemingly superficial Kai. And Bruce Alexander has a solid sense of duplicity as Koplov, but is heart-rending as the sisters’ father, Peter, lashing out at his remaining daughter in self-defence at not being able to confront the truth.

Blanche McIntyre’s direction is a real joy to behold. Not only are the characters she brings out consistent and evolving, but she makes excellent use of the sliding wall scenery, designed by James Perkins, to keep the surface of the production clean as events get increasingly murky.

When the walls usher in a new scene as they cross the stage, they do so fast enough to make the change feel instantaneous – but are measured enough in pace to allow for the necessary quick costume changes that help delineate character. And they serve as textural elements glowing with different colours in different settings or having translations projected on them.

Indeed, it is all so slickly and cleverly done that it is easy to overlook the cracks in Dawn King’s plotting. There’s nothing major, just the occasional situation where the motivation for action seems to be more as a service to the plot than as a genuine response from the character as created.

All this surface brio also masks a depth to the play which is not immediately apparent, as it looks at the way individuals become agents of the state. Their actions – whether as spooks or in less covert forces – are not innate, but learned from the institutions that employ them. Nor are the actions necessarily used to support the job in which they found employment, but to perpetuate the institution itself.

A surprisingly resonant piece of theatre which provides satisfaction on levels that are completely unanticipated.

Running time 1 hr 50 mins
Run ends Sat 16 November 2013, daily 7.30pm, (also 2.30pm Sat matinee)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street EH1 2ED
Tickets from

Click above to buy the script on Amazon

Ciphers on Out of Joint’s website:

Ciphers on Tour 2013/14
12 – 16 Nov Edinburgh
Traverse Theatre
0131 228 1404 Book online
19 – 23 Nov 2013 Warwick
Arts Centre
024 7652 4524 Book online
14 Jan – 8 Feb 2014 London
Bush Theatre
020 8743 5050 Book online
11 – 15 Feb 2014 Salisbury
01722 320 333 Book online


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