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Spy for Spy

[If you think you’ve already seen a post about this play: no, you aren’t imagining things, I have written about it twice. I wrote my original post after the second preview; then updated it after the run had ended. You can read the original post on the Internet Archive.]

About three weeks ago, a new play premiered at Riverside Studios in London: Spy for Spy. I enjoyed it so much that I saw it four times – it was funny, clever, and made my heart ache. It’s a romantic comedy with a clever narrative twist – it’s being told in the wrong order.

Unfortunately it only had a limited run, and it’s already closed. I don’t know if or when it will be staged again, but I wanted to capture a bit of why I enjoyed it so much.

💞 Love 💞

Thank you for experiencing Molly & Sarah’s journey with us.

Our limited run at @RiversideLondon ends tomorrow and we've had a blast.


The play is a two-hander, and it stars two women – a bit of a rarity in theatre – and it’s a romance story. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sapphic romance on stage, and that itself was quite refreshing.

The women are Sarah, an anxious and uptight lawyer (Amy Lennox), and Molly, a free-thinking actor (Olive Gray). They’re quite different people, and not the most obvious match, but I was absolutely sold. The dialogue feels genuine and warm, and both of them did a great job of capturing their characters. There was great chemistry, and I wanted to see them be happy together.

The story hits the typical romcom beats: the meet-cute, a first date of sorts, some conflict and reconciliation. But unlike most romcoms, they don’t always come in the same order: the play is split into six scenes, and every night the audience were invited to pick a random order. There were six heart-shaped balloons, you’d pick a balloon and the attached block would tell you the scene. Nobody knew how the play would go until half an hour before curtain up. One night it started at a wedding in a yurt; another night it opened with a breakup in their living room.

A blue poster board titled “Spy for Spy” with a message: “The order of today’s performance as determined by the audience is:” followed by six pink cards, each with a title and a song name. Next to the poster are several shiny red heart balloons.

There are other plays that experiment with non-linear storytelling – Nick Payne’s Constellations springs to mind – but this is far more ambitious.

Kieron Barry has written a masterpiece of a script – it’s such a dexterous piece of writing that can be told in different orders, and still make sense. There are so many through lines, subtle callbacks, and meta self-references that fit together. I took a few notes, and a week later I’m still realising clever elements of the script. (The watch! The wines! The expressions of gratitude! Email me if you want to read my notes and see what you missed.)

And the script is good even if you ignore the random order. The dialogue feels genuine, like two people would actually talk, and it’s laugh-a-minute funny – although balanced with sombre moments. (I don’t want to give too much away, but “You’re the only person I know who can lie down bolt upright” was both hilarious and felt like a bit of a personal attack.)

One of my favourite scenes is in Carmel, when Molly and Sarah talk about having sex. So often women’s sexuality is treated as shameful or titillating, and this scene is neither of those. It’s a very matter-of-fact scene in which two women in a loving relationship talk about their sexual desires and needs. It felt totally normal, which is how it should be.

The script is backed up by a great production. Amy and Sarah did a great job of bringing their characters to life, and I was hooked within seconds. One thing they did particularly well was switching demeanours – one scene they’re bickering partners, another they’re complete strangers. Subtle behaviours like the way they sit, stand, or look at each other, all add up. Trying to act in the wrong order seems like quite a challenge, but I think they did a good job.

There are other ways the show marks the different scenes. Small changes of costume, lighting, props. Several times, I had a sense of the new scene before a word was said. (Is this a sad scene? A happy one? Are they strangers or lovers?)

An empty theatre set. There are plain walls in pink and purple, with a small side table on stage right and a comfy chair on stage left. Otherwise, the set is empty.
The set is simple and subtle, but helps to convey the different scenes – small rearrangements of furniture, the addition of props, or changes in lighting, all work together to create different vibes.

If I have a criticism, it’s that some of the transitions felt slow and unpolished. The scenes themselves are carefully directed and coordinated, but it dropped in the moments in-between. The lighting and sound gave the transitions a distinct look and feel, and it’s a shame that wasn’t matched by the on-stage movements.

But overall I really enjoyed it, and I’m glad I could see it as many times as I did. I’ve seen several plays that benefit from multiple viewings – once to experience it fresh, once to see how it builds to the ending. Spy for Spy definitely benefits from multiple viewings, and it can feel entirely different when the order changes. One show I went to felt quite light-hearted and happy; another ended on a dark scene that changed the whole tone of the play.

This isn’t a fluffy romance with perfect people. Sarah and Molly are messy characters with insecurities and flaws, and that feels like a key through line of the play.

Some aspects of their personality are constant, regardless of the order of events or the challenges they face. Maybe that’s what the play means – love is about finding somebody who sees those imperfections, who can see past your facade, and will make the time for you anyway. They both talk about wanting to change for one another, but maybe love is about finding somebody who doesn’t need you to change.

I went to the show based on a single line of description – “a romantic comedy told in the wrong order” – and it delivered on that promise. It’s a clever piece of writing that demands you pay attention, and if you do, that attention is richly rewarded.

On a more personal note, I got to meet several of the people involved with the production over my various trips, and they were all incredibly nice. Lucy, Kieron, Amy, Olive, Nell, Tim, and others – everyone was so willing to chat after the show. The play fell in the middle of several stressful weeks at work, and it was nice to have something to offset that.

A selfie! I have light skin, dark brown hair, and rectangular glasses. I'm smiling at the camera, holding a heart-shaped balloon, and standing in front of one of the posters for the play.

I’m so glad I got a chance to see this play. I don’t know if or when it will run again, but if it does, I’d really recommend it.