What a terrific idea for a play. “The Spook” takes place in 1960s small-town Australia, where young Martin (Tom Long) is plucked from his humdrum life and asked by national spy agency ASIO to infiltrate the local Communist Party, specifically the innocuous-sounding regional South Bendigo Branch. As the years pass, Martin’s comrades become his friends and he begins to wonder exactly why he agreed to report their every activity to the government. Especially when they don’t do much.
Throughout the decade, the ragtag half-dozen can hardly maintain consensus on how the branch is managed, let alone align ideologically as the Communist Party splinters in Europe and China. Martin’s wife, Annette (Anna Lise Phillips), becomes less impressed with her husband’s spy activities as time passes, and his mother goes to her deathbed believing he’s a red and not liking it one bit.
Party members Elli (Eugenia Fragos) and George (George Spartels) reveal a terrible secret; Frank (Russell Kiefel), an angry fiftysomething, attempts to control the group; and Phyllis, played wonderfully by Kerry Walker, struggles to keep them together.
Playwright Melissa Reeves has attempted the difficult task of weaving big issues into an intimate drama, but her efforts become bogged-down in a first act that goes on and on. Spending 1½ hours on the setup significantly deadens the play’s entertainment quotient.
But by act two, everyone hits their stride, the pace picks up and “The Spook” begins to feel and sound as Reeves must have intended. It’s difficult not to think a firmer hand from Company B’s veteran director Neil Armfield would have aided the playwright, a stable tyro.
Armfield saw the play’s potential and plucked it from a workshop at the 2003 Playwrights Conference. With some first-act reworking, it might just zing.
Jennie Tate’s costumes and Ralph Myers’ set design, the stark wooden frame of a ’50s suburban house, are a treat. Perfs are in harmony and the ensemble clicks well, though Long’s (“The Dish”) airy vocal style is better suited to the screen than stage. Phillips proves particularly adept as the wife and a lesser party member.