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First Published 17 January 2014, Last Updated 1 August 2018

The eternally intriguing shrouded-in-secrecy world of spies has proved popular fodder for innumerable screen successes, but, for all its natural drama, it’s a subject surprisingly lacking on stage.

Enter emerging playwright Dawn King, who has followed her much talked about rural thriller Foxfinder with the equally thrilling Ciphers, an elliptical spy drama placed under Blanche McIntyre’s expertly provocative direction.

Rather than a tinker, tailor, soldier and spy, Ciphers presents audiences with a philandering artist, a scorned wife, cocaine-taking gallery manager and her sister Justine, an unlikely new employee of the secret service.

A quick scan of MI6’s recruiting section, however, would suggest that while recently redundant marketer Justine’s apathy to the mysterious world of double agents and surveillance we witness in her job interview may seem unbelievable, King has done her research.

“The qualities we look for are more ordinary than you would imagine,” the real-life ad begins, listing the very normal qualities necessary for a life less ordinary as the ability to be a good listener, convincing and to be an “intellectual sponge”. Under the guidance of her superior, the emotionally unshakable Sunita, a sponge is exactly what Justine willingly allows herself to be; transformed gradually from Miss Average into a persuasive and manipulative servant to the state, someone who will do anything – something that becomes vividly apparent in one particularly shocking scene – for her country.

As a spy drama, it’s fair to say audiences should expect murder, double crossings and the often devastating results of the personal sacrifices needed to undertake an anonymous role with such exceptional responsibilities. But, as awkward as it is for a feature discussing the production, to say too much about the plot would be the equivalent of talking about the previous night’s episode of *insert the name of any Scandinavian drama here* in front of a colleague while they plug their ears and shout ‘la la la la la’ in annoyance.  

What it is fair to reveal is McIntyre’s gripping staging, which adds an extra layer of intrigue to every scene. As King weaves the past into the present and we are thrown into the story at varying points from the narrative, McIntyre uses James Perkins’ clinical set to the full; screens passing across the stage to project subtitles or, quite literally, make people disappear.

It’s a complicated staging that is executed seamlessly and as stealthily as the agents themselves, and McIntyre’s stylish direction evokes King’s world of mystery, exclusive society cliques and intimidating characters with ease. The cast also convey King’s complicated setup with clarity, faced not only with having to double up on roles for each strand of the thriller, but grapple with multiple languages.

While Shereen Martin impresses as both the unflappable Sunita and the unlikable, shallow socialite Anoushka, it is Gráinne Keenan who carries the show, playing the anxiety-twinged Justine as mouldable as Play-Doh, gradually proving Sunita’s adage that anyone can be trained to jump through hoops, and the grief-stricken sister Kerry with distinctive, but crucially subtle, transformation.

As the past eventually catches up with the present, Ciphers concludes at the darkest place imaginable. Is it always totally believable? Perhaps not, but it will have you guessing until the very end.


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