Monday, 11 September 2017

Review Agent Of Influence

Francis Beckett infiltrates the murky world of pre-Second World War espionage through a fictional fashion correspondent in an enjoyable new play.

Agent of Influence
by Sarah Sigal

The Spy Who Came In From The Catwalk

In 1936, at the time of the abdication crisis, Lady Pamela More is the elegant fashion correspondent for The Times newspaper. She is uninterested in politics:  “I leave politics to the politicians.”

Indeed, at most, she views Germany’s new leader through the eyes of a London sophisticate who thinks all that shouting and goose-stepping is in rather poor taste: “I know Mr Hitler has done a lot for Germany, but it does look over the top.”

And she never asks about the First World War, then known simply as The Great War: “Far too gloomy.”

Yet by 1939 she is an experienced and courageous spy for (I assume) MI5, providing crucial information on the near-treasonable activities of the former king Edward VIII and his wife, the former Wallis Simpson, now the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

She is also able to face her own past, including a botched abortion leaving her unable to have children, which neither her mother nor her husband know about.

The story of the fictional Lady Pamela is told with sensitivity and masterly understatement by writer Sarah Sigal and performed to cut glass perfection by Rebecca Dunn.

Dunn's Lady Pamela is brittle at the start, but conveys the vulnerability beneath the veneer. When she speaks as someone else – Wallis Simpson, say – she does an excellent impression. However, it's not so polished that we ever doubt it's Lady Pamela doing it herself.

There's a minimalist set by Lucky Bert and Jessica Beck directs Dunn with not too many costume changes, as befits the director of a one-woman play in a charming but tiny fringe theatre.

All three have sufficient sense of history and respect for the nineteen thirties to convey the period authentically and avoid judging the action and characters by the standards of a later period.

The piece does rely on a few slightly dodgy historical assertions – not that I mind: that’s the nature of drama.

But we don’t know that the Duchess of Windsor had an affair with Hitler’s ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop. If she did, MI5 did not know about it. The only inconclusive evidence for it was unearthed after the Second World War and immediately suppressed by Prime Minister Clement's Attlee's  government.

We don’t know that the Windsors passed secrets to Hitler's Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, only that they had contact with him before the war; and it’s quite unlikely they would have had any secrets worth passing on.

It’s also pretty unlikely that the fashion correspondent of the Times in 1936 would have disliked and despised Diana Mitford, previously the wife of brewing heir Bryan Guinness but by then married to Britain’s fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

If  she did, she would have kept it to herself: the Mitfords were popular and fashionable in the circles Lady Pamela would have moved in.

And Lady Pamela is recruited by the handsome spymaster Charles, with whom she has an affair. In fact, she could only have been recruited by M – Maxwell Knight of MI5 - who not only considered it wrong to have an affair with his agents, but was also impotent.

However Lady Pamela's story and exploits are a nicely honed fiction. At about 75 minutes without an interval, this is an interesting, entertaining piece wittily written with a splendid central performance and well worth a green light.

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