Roxana Silbert's brilliant opener for Hampstead is a thrilling drama about spying, counter terrorism and obsession...

“We can’t find needles unless we collect the whole haystack.”

Oliver Johnstone (Neil), Enyi Okoronkwo (Zef) and Sarah Woodward (Hannah) - Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Oliver Johnstone (Neil), Enyi Okoronkwo (Zef) and Sarah Woodward (Hannah) - Photo: Ellie Kurttz

It starts so very well . . . . and gets better. Sarah Woodward as Hannah in charge of counter terrorism looking for two technies to form a task force to investigate leaks to The Sun and the Guardian newspapers from the Ministry of Defence, about British armed forces and secret arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

Hannah looks at Neil (Oliver Johnstone) and Zef (Enyi Okoronkwo) and judges them.   “Two pyjama-clad adolescents playing video games in a cupboard does not constitute a bloody ‘task force’.” she says.  They wear T shirts and jeans and carefully drape their back packs over their office chairs.   She describes the work problem and they appear not to be listening but typing away at their laptops.  Within a matter of what seems like seconds, they have a name as the likely leak.  Hannah and we, the audience, are equally impressed.

Neil and Zef have found a Guardian journalist called Cora Preece who is identified with the stories of the Saudi leaks.  Multiple screens show us where Cora Preece (Rona Morison) is, who she is talking to and what is being said.  These streams from various cameras with differing picture quality are from wi-fi equipment and surveillance.  The monitoring is all encompassing and quite scary, as well as exciting in its scope.

Neil and Zef have to watch Cora, and Neil is drawn into this woman’s life.  Any more information would be a spoiler.  Act Two opens with the political.  Hannah lists the terrorist attacks in London from Westminster Bridge in March 2017 to London Bridge in November 2019.  She explains the difficulty of identifying “lone wolf” terrorists.  “We can’t find needles unless we collect the whole haystack, ” she says.

It is a choice being made for us at government level, between personal liberty and protection from the acts of terrorism.  Hannah wants Neil and Zef to design a system which is more efficient at identifying lone terrorists with fewer false positives.  Al Blyth has hit upon a subject of interest to us all and dramatized it with vibrancy and room for thought.  Let us hope there are more plays to come from him.

Tom Piper’s set is beautiful and adjusts to different venues without a need for scenery changes using hanging flats for projection to illustrate surveillance scenes.

In parallel with these scenes from the past a man in a hooded duffle coat is having discussions with the woman Denise (Lucy Black) who we have seen as a senior member of the Guardian‘s staff.  My only query is a conundrum: how to underline the early versions of these discussions so as to differentiate this time frame with less subtlety, but without being overly obvious.

Roxana Silbert gets tip top performances from her cast and if I were a producer, I would be queuing up to transfer this play to the West End.  I loved the friendship and banter between Neil and Zef in very credible and likable parts.  Although they have the technical skills they are also the innocents of GCHQ and the world of spies.  The denouement will make you gasp.  Do not miss this electrifying production at Hampstead!

Production Notes

The Haystack
Written by Al Blythe

Directed by Roxana Silbert



Sarah Woodward

Oliver Johnstone

Rona Morison

Enyi Okoronkwo

Sirine Saba

Lucy Black



Oli Higginson


Director: Roxana Silbert

Designer: Tom Piper

Movement Director: Wayne Parsons

Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher

Composers and Sound Designers: Ben and Max Ringham

Video Designer: Duncan McLean

Costume Designer: Emma Cains



Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval

Closed at the Hampstead Theatre on 12th March 2020



Hampstead Theatre

Eton Avenue

Swiss Cottage

London NW3 3EU

Phone: 020 7722 9301


Tube: Swiss Cottage


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at Hampstead Theatre on 10th February 2020