When I was a child – in the 1960s – the world was a fairly easy to understand place. Food appeared without effort, Mum was tough, Dad fun, Brother horrid, Gran and Nana kind and chocolaty and our dog huge and slobbery.
My brother and I spent a lot of time in the garden or with Mum when she went out. Sometimes that involved visits to neighbours, always other housewives and often their children. If I look back now, a number of those women were unlike Mum. With Mum you could relax in her presence, so long as you complied with some fairly clear cut, black and white rules involving noise, mess and manners. With these women you could never be quite sure what you might get – one time they would be easy going, ‘have another biscuit’, whereas another they would be all grim faces, fiddling with their own version of a security blanket – tea towel, antimacassar, apron, doily – and anxious to know where your hands were.
In those situations you learnt early on that the best you could do was fly beneath their radar because on those days it was easy to trigger some atomic explosion. Our next door neighbour, Olive Haylor was rather like that, very concerned with the whereabouts of fingers.
Last Friday, I was reminded of such women, a product of their time when their lives were determined by their husband’s positions or the success of their children; they were vicarious people.
We went to see
Pack of Lies
at the Chocolate Menier Factory Theatre near London bridge. Written in 1983 but set in 1960 it is a tale of suspicion, spying and suppression. Based on a true story it seems, one suburban family is caught up in a police operation to spy on their neighbours who might also be spies. Cold War suspicions run like fissures through the expectations of the middle class, aspirational and unbelievably repressed British family, the Jacksons.
This is the blurb
The Jacksons are a nice middle aged English couple. Their best friends are the Krogers, their Canadian neighbours. All is blissful in their world until a detective from Scotland Yard asks to use their house as an observation station to foil a Soviet spy ring operating in the area. They are really put to the test when the detective asks them to help set a trap. Should they betray their friends… Or their country?
This play is based on a true story.
Finty Williams, as Mrs Jackson fiddles her way through the production, her nerves on constant display. Like so many women I now recognise from before, there is a driven need, a hard-wired instinct to conform. Yet here two basic pillars of life are in conflict, both involving ‘doing the right thing’. On the one hand the police require help and being law abiding the Jacksons must do their bit; but it also means that their friends, people who they trust and who they believe trust them have to be lied to and betrayed – and in so doing also lie or at least dissemble to their teenage daughter, who they are determined to bring up understanding the importance of always ‘doing the right thing’.
You can see so clearly in every nuance, every twitch, in how the weight of the deceits cause the Jacksons to bend and shrink as the play proceeds what this is doing to Mr and Mrs Jackson. The tension is unbearable and Mrs Jackson never really recovers from it.
Would it be right to say I enjoyed such a play? It is a slow burner, it is mannered and dated yet very current, it irritates when each character explains something about his or her motivation by a soliloquy through the fourth wall and yet it is a tour de force.
Finty Williams and Chris Larkin, as Mr Jackson are perfect. I know, or at least, knew these people as a child, through children’s eyes, not then understanding how important class and place and status and not being embarrassed were to their self esteem. I went round to their houses to play after school. I sat up straight, ate my sandwiches and waited until released into the garden. You could feel the pressure, the lack of oxygen caused by all the sucked in breaths. Sitting on the school-bench-like seating – also irritating as the arse that should have been confined to section C12 spread onto C13 that I’d paid for – I was captivated.
Good plays end, for me, in stillness. I do not want to stand up but rather remain where I am, processing what I have just seen. Pack of Lies did that. Yes, I think, despite the somewhat uncomfortable trip down memory lane, I can say I enjoyed this.
Perhaps I should add that when first performed, Judy Dench played Mrs Jackson and her husband Michael Williams Mr Jackson. Finty is their daughter and she was bloody good too. If you do get a chance to see it, I would recommend you do.