Single Spies Review

Belinda Lang as Coral Browne in Single Spies. Images Alastair Muir.
Belinda Lang as Coral Browne in Single Spies. Images Alastair Muir.

It’s sad to say that if you asked a class of sixth-formers to name the Cambridge Five, or even if they knew what the term meant, they are unlikely to give you a coherent answer. The acts of treason by Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and (the one everyone forgets) John Cairncross, were a lifetime ago. Indeed, their betrayal took place 80-odd years ago.

But, no matter how far back, and despite entente cordiale (ish) with countries that once lurked behind the Iron Curtain, spies do continue to fascinate, if only in James Bond films.

Alan Bennett’s interest in the Five is less to do with their nefarious spying and more to do with the consequences.

His two one-act plays, about two of the group, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, collectively known as Single Spies, were first staged at the National in 1988.

Now they’ve come back out of the shadows for a lively revival in a co-production from Chichester and Birmingham Rep, opening tonight at Chichester Festival Theatre before embarking on a UK tour.

Their success will depend largely on their audiences. Most people under the age of 40 will have no idea about the various cultural references. Tom Stoppard’s criticism about the dumbing down of theatre-goers may be moot but it’s more likely the sheer ignorance of teachers and syllabuses in considering whether the subject matter has a place in classrooms.

But the treachery of the Five – whose identity was only fully known in 1979 – couldn’t be more on point. Walls and Curtains may have come down but secrets and lies are still big business.

Nicholas Farrell in Single Spies. Images Alastair Muir.

An Englishman Abroad centres on the fate of Guy Burgess who spied for the Russians while working in the BBC and the Foreign Office. When his cover was blown he disappeared, along with Maclean, to Russia.

In 1958, seven years after fleeing, a drunken Burgess, at a Moscow theatre to watch old friend Michael Redgrave in Hamlet, staggers into a dressing room of Australian actress Coral Browne and throws up. It was an inauspicious beginning of a fleeting relationship between the pair.

Browne is asked to visit and finds the dishevelled Burgess living in a filthy flat and dressed in a rotten, threadbare suit. “What is that smell?” she asks. “Me probably”.

The pair endure an afternoon of awkward silences during which Burgess plays the star his one and only record and gets her to measure him for a new suit from Jermyn Street, bespoke pyjamas and a new Eton tie.

Chichester favourite Nicholas Farrell makes a wonderfully shambolic Burgess, his collar-length hair an unruly mess and his ruddy face a picture of alcoholic excess (the programme reveals that the spy died of chronic liver failure just five years later).

The Cambridge spy cuts a sad, exhausted, figure on the festival theatre performance space amid Peter McIntosh’s splendid set which looks rather lost on the large stage. Farrell delivers a poignant turn as a faded English gentleman in exile and on his uppers. Burgess seems a man proud of his exploits, but one not entirely enjoying the fruits of his labours. Regrets? He has a few.

Burgess says that his biggest regret is not getting a set of NHS dentures before he left, and he misses the gossip. For a gregarious, outgoing man, who is now confined to a tiny apartment and watched constantly, the isolation from culture and society must surely have been a terrible punishment.

Belinda Lang is eminently watchable as the actorish Browne whose language is peppered with “darling” and “ducky.” The star can’t understand Burgess’s reason for betraying his country, and she is baffled as to why he would prefer dreary Communist Russia to London.

Single Spies

A Question of Attribution is an entirely different affair with Downton Abbey’s David Robb giving an engrossing performance as Sir Anthony Blunt, the Queen’s surveyor of pictures.

I don’t know if Robb’s characterisation is actually based on the disgraced knight but I couldn’t help seeing a rather good impression of the late art critic, Brian Sewell. His speech and walk is ever so slightly camp and his lips purse in condescension when an ignorant outsider expresses an opinion about a masterpiece. There’s also an unmistakable air of superiority, arrogance and supreme confidence.

Lang returns for one scene as HMQ – Her Majesty the Queen – when the pair discuss art, forgeries and fakes. “I was talking about art,” he later says. ” I’m not so sure she was.”

Her HMQ is a rather eccentric creation, much too thin and looking more Margaret than Liz, the voice a little too high and clipped, but Lang captures that glint in the queen’s eye which suggests she’s often far more acutely aware of what’s going on than she’s given credit for.

The queen and her art expert are staring at a picture of Titian which, it’s later revealed, contains a total of five men, mostly hidden under layers of paint. It’s an obvious allegory.

Single Spies has three fine, well sketched, central performances. Alan Bennett’s familiar rhythm and wry turn of phrase is instantly recognisable but his dialogue is also intelligent without being dry. A tremendous revival.

2016 UK Tour Dates

February 4-13, Chichester Festival Theatre
February 17-27, Birmingham Repertory Theatre
March 1-5, Richmond Theatre
March 8-12, The Marlowe Theatre
March 15-19, Theatre Royal Newcastle Upon Tyne
March 21-26, Oxford Playhouse
March 29-April 2, The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
April 4-9, Theatre Royal Bath
April 12-16, Leeds Grand Theatre
April 18-23, Salisbury Playhouse
April 26-30, Sheffield Theatres

Review Rating
  • Single Spies
4

Summary

Single Spies has three fine, well sketched, central performances. Alan Bennett’s familiar rhythm and wry turn of phrase is instantly recognisable but his dialogue is also intelligent without being dry. A tremendous revival.

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