Sunday, 1 October 2017

Review Anglian Mist

Journalist and blogger, Matt Salusbury regularly contributes to the Fortean Times and is author of the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles from CFZ publishing. Now he's lured in by a Cold War thriller, cunningly combining fiction and fact.

Anglian Mist 
by Cordelia Spence and Tim Lane

Listen, Do You Want To Know A Secret?

An obsessive Cambridge academic is giving a talk on the British military's Cold War nuclear and radar project.  Yet when the subject matter turns ever-so-slightly conspiratorial,  a senior citizen heckler in the audience surprises him by challenging his account.

Such a  project really did exist on Orford Ness, a remote spit of shingle, accessible only by ferry, sticking out into the North Sea next to the sleepy Suffolk village of Orford.

Now there's Orford Ness the play or, rather, the thriller Anglian Mist - named for the project and referring to the thick fog which can descend in seconds out of nowhere on a clear day, shrouding the coastline and, once, Cold War shenanigans.

Fresh from an immersive performance at the former Ministry of Defence site, Stuff Of Dreams' theatre company's Anglian Mist is currently on a regional tour until the end of November
Roll back time, it's 1973 and, frankly, the clichéd, formulaic world of espionage with characters addressing the audience directly in monologue seemed at first a bit unpromising.

In the pub after a day's work at the facility, one staff member immediately alerts suspicions with an inordinate interest in birdwatching. A mispronounced name of a local river by one character also caused some muttering amongst we curmudgeonly Suffolk folk. 

But, remember, this is also a world of deception and misdirection.

After the characters and atmosphere are established, an intriguing, entertaining thriller, by writer and director Cordelia Lane and Tim Spence, kicks in, just managing to remain on the side of the credible.

All kudos then also to the cast - Adrienne Grant as Anna Rees, a 1970s' clerical worker on the project and present-day senior citizen, Russell J Turner as engineer Eugene Mallam and Matthew Barnes as the historian Valentine Scarrow.

Yet much of the praise must go to the two researchers listed in the programme, Amy Aldous and Peter Hogarth, as well as the writers.

They all contribute to a well-plotted piece  -  quoting from what appear to be authentic declassified Ministry of Defence documents -. and an exciting fictional  narrative without compromising fact or fiction.

The Suffolk setting becomes a springboard for a tangled intrigue and much deeper and more complex reflections on espionage goings-on at Orford Ness and beyond.

Without putting in any spoilers, I am at liberty to disclose a security breach has put everything in jeopardy, despite an extensive surveillance network - “We’ve tapped almost every phone in Suffolk”.

The action takes us swiftly from Suffolk to Moscow to the Soviet border, via an interrogation scene faintly reminiscent of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes video  from the height of the Cold War.

Equally, and this also reflects a reality, there are many twists and turns about whether the system being developed, better known as Cobra Mist, works or not. 

We in the audience had to do some intellectual hard labour to grasp which era we were in. Nevetheless the time shifts made for a satisfying jigsaw taking in real local landmark The Jolly Sailors' pub where we accompany Anna as she meets for the first time a colleague, long dead in another time shift.

Then it’s  twentieth century Soviet Moscow. A character bridges death and time with a letter read aloud 40 years later.

Anglian Mist's time travelling structure and storytelling is quick moving and deft. In mid-sentence, Adrienne Grant convincingly shifts from the body language of a young Cold War era-woman to a senior citizen of today.

Resisting the temptation to go twentieth century kitsch, Molly Barrett's nicely claustrophobic, stripped down 1970s' set is minimalist but effective, lightly wearing its period setting.

At its centre are illuminated Ministry of Defence maps of the area and the noticeboards of an obsessive researcher, crammed full with documents and photographs.

Meanwhile co-writer Tim Lane, doubling as sound designer, has created a soundscape of intermittent radio static and odd background bleeps throughout, ratcheting up the tension.

Individuals are caught up in crushing circumstances. There's the moral cowardice of some and the plain evil of others who use the political situation as an excuse for their actions.

It works as a thriller but Anglian Mist's Cold War is also very plausible as to why the fictional spies spy and betray,  not least to help them survive in a dog-eat-dog world,

Orford Ness now?. It's a National Trust nature reserve, transformed into one of Suffolk's more bizarre tourist attractions. Sightseers can wander in and out of the "pagodas", former laboratories to test nuclear detonators, However everyone is still kept at a distance from the marshland and the aerials poking out of the main concrete facility. 

Starting off as a seemingly conventional and rather clunky spy thriller, Anglian Mist transforms itself into something much more thoughtful and absorbing.

The appeal for me lies both in its local references  and also an intelligent, wider meditation on the nature of spying. So it's a far from hush, hush TLT amber/green light for Anglian Mist. See here for more details of the tour.