With only three people on stage, A Splinter of Ice is an apt choice for award-winning Original Theatre Company to make its return to theatre.
Opening its UK tour at Malvern Theatres in Worcestershire, Covid restrictions were still in place with masks worn by the audience, spaced out across the auditorium, as this intelligent drama got underway.
This Cold War-themed story is by Ben Brown, a writer well-known for his award-winning West End play Three Days in May, which inspired the Oscar-winning film Darkest Hour.
A Splinter of Ice is rooted in the real-life friendship between author Graham Greene and his former MI6 colleague-turned spy Kim Philby. Brown has imagined what took place at a meeting between the extraordinary characters as the Cold War is nearly at an end in Moscow in 1987.
Greene was an apologist for Philby, who defected to the USSR after being discovered as one of the famous Cambridge spy ring. The men had worked together during the Second World War at MI6 and that history and colleagues including Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean are dropped into their discussions as they catch up on old times and reveal how much they really knew about spies within "the firm".
It's a slow burner with heavy dialogue so it helps to understand the background of the spy ring and Greene's novels including The Human Factor, The Third Man and even The Power and the Glory to fully embrace the context and clever wordplay of Brown's script.
Early on, Philby encourages Greene to "come in from the cold", which raises a few knowing chuckles from audience members in tune with their spy thrillers.
It's a well-researched drama but the first act loses its momentum and lacks pace ahead of the interval, failing to be as gripping as the real-life spy story it is examining.
The second act gathers pace as attention focuses on Philby's wife Rufa (Karen Ascoe) and there's an edge of noir as you start to question Philby's rose-tinted account of his Soviet life.
With the focus on these two complex characters, the crux of the production is having two actors with enough presence to carry it off. Oliver Ford Davies is an affable, gentle Graham Greene, showing tenderness to controversial Philby, played by Stephen Boxer, more recently seen on television as Denis Thatcher in The Crown and in Small Axe.
Both actors, along with Ascoe, are well cast and have a fantastic presence on stage enhanced by decades in the business at the top of their game.
Amidst Covid, you wonder whether directors Alan Strachan with Alastair Whatley also paired back on production and sets and chose this drama as it is set in one room with no visual effects and scene changes.
A Splinter of Ice is an intriguing play with much to take away from the performance but the ultimate highlight is being able to watch two of the best stage actors back in a theatre for a live performance.