Theatrical three spill beans on Alan Bennett’s Single spies

single spies

The theatrical three – Nicholas Farrell, David Robb and Belinda Lang – are far from hush hush when it comes to talking about their latest venture.

The trio are starring in a national tour of Alan Bennett’s hilarious and often insightful two-act comedy, Single Spies, which comes to the Leeds Grand next week ahead of visits to Salisbury and Sheffield.

Nicholas Farrell in Single Spies. Images Alastair Muir.

TV and stage regular Nicholas Farrell is the only one of the group to have dipped a toe into Alan Bennett’s back catalogue (so to speak) and the experience was pregnant with problems.

Single Spies is two short plays, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, involving two Britain’s notorious “Cambridge Five”, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

The former fled to Moscow on having his cover blown while Blunt worked on for years as the Queen’s surveyor of pictures before being exposed.

The Chichester Festival Theatre and Birmingham Rep Theatre co-production has been touring since January and completes its travels at the end of this month (Stage Review’s four-star verdict

Stage Review asked the avuncular Mr Farrell what drew him to the production?

“The script, first and foremost. Bennett is one of our great playwrights and I think both of these scripts are wonderful. When the offer came in I think I considered for half a second before accepting. Here we have two perfect one-act plays about two men who were utterly different in personality but shared, to some extent, a vision.

“Alan’s writing is so special, there is such wit and humour and he draws characters so wonderfully well, there’s always a vulnerability to the characters which makes such a rich story, certainly true in Single Spies. I’m so excited about the project, it’s an absolute privilege to work on his texts.

“I played Alan Bennett in The Lady in the Van at the National Theatre, in fact Kevin McNally and I played the two versions of him.

“There’s the film version now with Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings which I’m looking forward to catching up on, but there was the ‘objective writer’ Alan Bennett figure and then the Alan Bennett who was involved in the action and involved in encounters with Maggie Smith’s character, The Lady.

That was an incredibly happy experience, hugely great fun and sharing the stage with Maggie Smith was quite something.

“That was the first and only time I’ve worked on any of Alan Bennett’s work and it was very memorable. It also has a very fond place in my heart because 16 years ago my wife was heavily pregnant and this happened to be during the
rehearsal period for the show.

“I had asked that if at any point the impending birth arrived, during the preview period when we’d opened the show, that I would be granted permission to go and attend the birth of my child.

Which of course was graciously given but this meant they obviously, just in case it happened, had to have an understudy and Alan agreed to director Nick Hytner’s request that he would go on for me.

“I don’t think he was terribly keen on the idea! But we opened and my wife was a long way past her due date so I told her to come to theatre and watch the show, hoping it might kick start something.

“She came round backstage after the show and bumped into Alan Bennett on the stairs who said: ‘Oh Stella, nobody wants this baby more than me’.

“Then one Saturday afternoon my wife went into labour so I duly said I won’t be able to do the matinee and Kevin McNally announced at the top of the show: ‘Due to the indisposition of Nicholas Farrell, the part of Alan Bennett will be played by Alan Bennett’.

Earlier this year Farrell plunged into musical theatre, in my first musical in 36 years at Chichester Festival Theatre.

“A Damsel in Distress was based on a Wodehouse novel with Gershwin music, which is a pretty great concoction. I’m in love with Chichester and the regime that Jonathan Church has had, he’s had the most wonderful 10 years creating a fantastic environment and catalogue of memorable work.”

Single Spies

David Robb is well known to TV audiences for playing Doctor Clarkson in Downton Abbey but his first love is the stage and, along with Belinda, the pair are making their débuts in a Bennett play.

He said: “It’s nice to be back to treading the boards. Us classically trained actors I think always feel tugged back to the stage.

“It’s a different discipline to screen acting and I like to go through the process of rehearsal which we rarely do in TV nowadays.

“Single Spies is almost a classic now, it’s Alan Bennett at his best and all three of these leading characters are very mercurial and fun to play. I’ve never done any Alan Bennett before so this is a real treat.”

Robb was born in London but brought up in Edinburgh.

“I had a Scots dad and an English mum – so I’m a bit of a mongrel – but I favour my Scottish side, especially when it comes to rugby.

“I was encouraged to go into acting by the head of the English department at the Royal High School there. He was a wonderful man and, in fact, my first role was a soldier in Macbeth at the Edinburgh Festival in 1965. I was still at school at the time…”


Belinda Lang is a big Bennett fan. “You couldn’t not be really. I’ve seen nearly everything of his.

“He’s one of those rocks that makes our country sit together artistically. He’s just brilliant.

“He’s got a fantastic ear but I’ve never done one of his plays and I’ve always felt sad about that so this is great. And I’m such a fan.

“I’ve also just worked with (director) Rachel Kavanagh on Oklahoma! and she mentioned that she was doing this but I never imagined she’d ask me.

“This was such a lovely surprise”.

Watch Birmingham Rep’s original trailer to give a teaser as to what to expect:

Remaining 2016 Tour Dates

April 12-16, Leeds Grand Theatre
April 18-23, Salisbury Playhouse
April 26-30, Sheffield Theatres

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