STAGE REVIEW: Our Man in Havana, Festival Theatre, Malvern, from July 11 to July 15, 2017.

I SENSE that a new theatrical genre has been creeping up on us in recent years.

It goes something like this; take a well-known classic novel, preferably a fairly light-hearted one, write a spoof, quirky version of it for the stage using an absolute minimum of actors, who will double up as a bewildering array of characters, and play every part desperately for laughs, using innumerable yet ingenious props, and scene changes at the drop (or a change) of a hat.

In recent times the outdoor touring company, Illyria, toured extremely popular versions of Alice in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice; then we were treated to Patrick Garland’s memorable Thirty-Nine Steps, a production which has since run and run. And last year The Creative Cow company had a sold-out tour with Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt.

Now CC are back again with their own splendid version of Greene’s black comedy Our Man in Havana’– and they are back again with another sure-fire hit.

The four man company, fronted charmingly, if initially understated, by Charles Davies as the unwilling, somewhat down at heels, hero of the piece, Wormold - a very unsuccessful carpet vacuum salesman.

Well he would be fairly unaccomplished trying to sell carpet cleaners in pre-revolution Cuba where there is a distinct lack of carpets; most floors covered only with marble or mosaics on account of the unbearable heat.

Fortunes look bleak for Wormold, especially as he is trying to keep his young daughter, Milly (Isla Carter) in the luxury to which she has become accustomed.

However, his fortunes take a turn for the better when he is approached by the British Secret Service to spy for them – James Dinsmore is the very epitome of the upper-class twit, Hawthorne, as the MI5 local undercover agent. The problem for Wormold is that there appears to be little of any cloak and dagger stuff for him to pick up on, despite his habit of frequenting the many low-class dives of the Cuban capital.

Wormold comes up with an ingenious solution; in the absence of any serious undercover activity, he simply makes stuff up, inventing characters and even using real-life persons such as Inspector Segura, the Chief of Police (Michael Onslow).

The stories he invents for these unwitting secret agents, he supports by supplying blown up diagrams of deadly weapons which are in reality the inner workings of his most modern and very complicated vacuum cleaners.

So successful is Wormold at his inventions, of course, is that they completely convince everyone back in London. Mayhem and murder ensue, especially when one of his fictitious criminals, Raoul, is actually blown up, and his close friend, Dr Hasselbacher, is assassinated. Wormold is forced into taking revenge on the lot of them.

If the staging of the first half is a little slow, especially with so many changes of scene, (why does the unwieldly desk have to be wheeled on and off so often – just turn it to one side, slap on a couple of candlesticks and it becomes a fireplace!), the pace certainly picks up in the hectic second act.

I especially liked the scene in which Isla Carter, as the mistress of the drug baron, Sanchez, dances a very sexy tango, while accusing him of dalliances with every other woman in Havana.

James Dinsmore then transforms himself into a transvestite night club vamp, all feathers and bangles, for a very inventive madcap motor car journey complete with tilting windscreen and flashing headlights.

The best scene of the play takes place towards the end as Wormold challenges Inspector Segura to a game of draughts, with every ‘piece’ being a miniature bottle of whiskey, each one of which has to be drunk as it is being ‘taken’ in the course of the game. Wormold makers sure that he loses; Segura passes out having drunk so much of his winnings and Wormold is able to use Segura’s pistol for the revenge killing of the MI5 assassin, Carter.

All ends well; Wormold finds romance, and, in a final twist of irony, he finds himself decorated for ‘services to the export industry’ by a decidedly bearded and swarthy Queen Elizabeth, played by Michael Onslow, who doubled up as almost every other part in the entire story.

I’m not sure that Our Man in Havana can be called a drama; it misses the danger, the satire, and the pervasively threatening atmosphere of the original work. But the genre certainly has entertainment in shedloads, and, somehow, I have the feeling that Greene himself would have completely approved.