Writer Mark Langham’s theatrical ripping yarn is spun from the real-life, tragic-comic story of Carl Hans Lody, a hapless junior lieutenant in the German Naval Reserve who, in 1914, found himself thrust into the role of international spy.
It would be fair to say that espionage was not his forte.
Langham opens the story as Lody (played here by Stephen Lloyd-Coombs) faces the firing squad. His life, in chronological order, then flashes before our eyes for the next 70 minutes.
We briefly meet his parents (theirs were brief lives, after all), follow him to America, where he marries an heiress (another brief encounter), and then back to Germany where he is eventually recruited by German Naval Intelligence and dispatched to England under an American alias.
Based in Edinburgh, Lody observes ship movements, dutifully filing reports to an address in Stockholm – one that somewhat amused British intelligence officers already know is a false front for the Germans.
Lody is a marked man but he’s also a charming one. British intelligence faces a dilemma: is it really the done thing to shoot such a decent chap?
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Stylistically, Water seems to owe a lot to Patrick Barlow’s smash-hit stage adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. Its storytelling methods are similar. The tongue-in-cheek earnest tone is much the same.
And as in The 39 Steps, it trades on the fun to be had in watching a larger-than-life story told at breakneck speed by a cast of four with only a threadbare collection of props to draw on.
The raw material of Lody’s life is excellent and Langham spins an engrossing if sketchy story from it. The cast’s constant shape-shifting (they play 46 characters) is impressive.
Addressing the audience directly throughout, Lloyd-Coombs is ideally cast in the role of the guileless Lody. Langham and Tristan Black play a variety of police and intelligence roles from both sides of the conflict. Lib Campbell covers all the female roles (ranging from a Barbara Stanwyck-like heiress to an ancient Edinburgh landlady) with aplomb. They’re all very sharp – Campbell especially.
Fringe HQ can’t offer much in the way of production support (or stage space for that matter) but you are so quickly swept up by Lody’s story that any technical or venue shortcomings don’t really come into play.
Water deserves a return season in a better-resourced theatre. As The 39 Steps has demonstrated many times over the years, there’s an audience for this kind of show.