Sometimes a set says everything you need to know about what is to come. Tara Kelly’s design for Cyanide at 5 certainly provides one of those sets. It’s old-fashioned chairs set around a coffee table with tea pot and cups and saucers, the lamp with frilly lampshade just beside, and lastly the large rug: which all make it perfectly clear we are in the home of an elderly lady. And likely a lone lady. And one with some money.
It’s in this sitting room that all the action takes place; although maybe action is not quite the right word. Rather, this two-hander is very much about the conversation and debate between the home’s occupant, Zofia (Lise-Ann McLaughlin) and her visitor Irene (Philippa Heimann).
Zofia, as well as being that lone elderly woman, is also a famous writer, although she has only ever written the single book, ‘The War Between Us’. It’s a fictional diary of a young Polish Jewish woman during World War Two. The book is an international best seller that, even 40 years later, is still considered an important contribution towards understanding the treatment and murder of Polish Jews under the Nazi occupation. Her visitor Irene is, or so it first seems, a fan of the book. She claims it changed her life and so has asked to meet with Zofia to discuss just why that is so.
It’s this discussion that forms the play. The pair talk, argue and debate, slowly drawing out new information from each other, almost in a game of cat and mouse, although it’s not always clear who is which creature. We soon discover who exactly Irene is and why the book was so important to her. The twists come regularly as the pair duel together, with each new revelation leading us in another direction.
It’s a fascinating idea and easy to see how this play could hold great meaning to some audiences. It addresses identity and cultural misappropriation, and there is the wonderful moral debate at its heart over whether it is right to profit from someone else’s life, especially one cut short by the Holocaust. To this end Cyanide at 5 certainly makes for an interesting watch.
The problem is, however, that it feels just a little stilted and dated in style. Maybe something has been lost in translation; the play is by Czech playwright Pavel Kohout and set in his native Prague. It’s very easy to imagine it would feel much more impactful in those countries whose history is so intertwined within the story being told and played to people with an emotional attachment to them.
But here in London it doesn’t quite hit home; there is no real power in its telling. The structure feels wrong: we get plot, a little more plot, then twist, repeated over and over. By the time we reach the final twist the reaction is not so much one of shock, more a case of ‘oh look another twist that we could almost see coming since the last twist five minutes prior’. It generates a feeling of apathy rather than surprise. The unusual configuration of King’s Head Theatre perhaps doesn’t help either, from my seat (on the lefthand side of the stage) it felt that I was watching Heimann’s back more than her face, surely an oversight in Peter Kavanagh’s directing?
It’s great to see European plays being given space on London stages, and this is genuinely an interesting hour debating the rights and wrongs. But much like the set told us who would be occupying the space, too much of this play is signposted far in advance and fails to really leave you guessing where it will end.
Written by: Pavel Kohout
Directed by: Peter Kavanagh
Produced by: Peter Kavanagh and Maddy Chisholm-Scott
Design by: Tara Kelly
Lighting and Sound Design by: Benjy Adams
Cyanide at 5 plays at King’s Head Theatre until 26 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.