High Tor Players latest production, which toured to Ashover Village Hall, Darley Dale’s Whitworth Centre and Wirksworth Town Hall, was a gripping Cold War thriller based on true events,
In 1961, Peter and Helen Kroger, two Americans living in a London suburb, were convicted of spying for the Russians and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.
From the factual story of how the Krogers came to be caught by MI5 with the unwitting help of their neighbours and friends the Jacksons, Hugh Whitemore created Pack of Lies, an intense human drama of lies and betrayal.
Barbara, Bob and their teenage daughter Julie were an ordinary, decent, English family. Their undramatically happy suburban life in Ruislip was intruded upon and irrevocably altered by the sudden arrival of a mysterious stranger, Stewart, an MI5 officer.
Stewart manipulated the family into allowing their home to be used as a look-out post, so playing a role which inevitably ended in the betrayal of their beloved friends.
All the action took place in the Jacksons’ sitting room, across the road from the Krogers. The sofa with its cosy crocheted cover symbolised the innocent domestic domain. Barbara, the emotional centre of the drama, presided here.
The High Tor Players, directed by Jane Small, powerfully evoked both the austerity of the era and the rising tensions and emotions of the claustrophobic situation as Stewart and his MI5 “girls” started to take over the family’s lives.
Betrayal was at the heart of the play. The Jacksons were caught in the middle as they were effectively deceived into co-operating by a powerful representative of the Establishment in the person of Stewart, played with understated menace by Simon Brister.
On the other side of the street, the Krogers, their best friends, were busily transmitting secrets about the British underwater weapons programme to the Russian KGB. Helen Kroger, played ebulliently by Alicia Bloundele, was an extrovert, larger than life character, loved by Barbara and Julie as well as slightly shocking them.
Susan Devaney played Barbara with huge emotional commitment, bringing out the increasing horror she felt when she realised first that Helen was not what she appeared, and then, even worse, that Barbara herself had played a part in unmasking her friend. Helen equally betrayed Barbara: she and her husband (Peter Wilmot) were using the Jacksons and it turned out had insinuated themselves into the friendship for that purpose.
The way ordinary decent people like the Jacksons can be made to feel powerless and small was very well conveyed by Susan Devaney, and by Chris and Charlotte Gayle, father and daughter who movingly played Bob and modestly rebellious Julie.
Fran Happe and Pauline Revill were natural and convincing as Stewart’s “girls”, spying on the Krogers from Julie’s bedroom. They brought out the awkward position as they built up a friendly relationship with Barbara while keeping from her what was really going on.
The Jacksons were lied to, condescended upon and used. Their feelings were utterly disregarded. The Krogers were communist intellectuals who looked down on and underestimated them. Simon Brister as Stewart excellently captured the entitled, superior attitude of the MI5 officer right from his first lines: as far as Stewart was concerned, the suburb of Ruislip was just a place “one drives through on the way to Oxford” - from Whitehall presumably.
Class betrayal was evoked strongly in Peter Wilmot’s portrayal of Kroger where he unfolded the revelation he experienced in the Depression era, seeing the hopelessness and despair of hundreds of unemployed men, betrayed and forgotten by society. This theme resonates today with the unpleasant results of what happens when large sections of society get ignored and feel trampled over by politicians and the ever-present Establishment.
The play was tightly performed and gripped from the start. Things built steadily to an anguished climax as Barbara and Bob finally told the truth to Julie - her Auntie Helen and Uncle Peter were spies working for the Russians. Barbara’s cry of “Julie!” as they both left the stage was heart-rending. Bob ended the play with the quiet revelation of the family’s wrecked happiness. Barbara died - a heart attack. But not before Stewart had visited with a thank-you present for her: a box of fish knives, silver-plated.