Cell Mates

Simon Gray

Hampstead Theatre

From 30 November 2017 to 20 January 2018

Review by Philip Fisher

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The wise are fond of reminding us that truth is stranger than fiction. If Simon Gray’s imaginative reconstruction of spy George Blake’s middle years is a reliable representation, they are absolutely right.

Cell Mates is now irrevocably connected with the difficulties that its leading actor, Stephen Fry, faced when the play was first (briefly) produced back in 1995. While the experience was clearly unpleasant for the unfortunate actor, it is possible that by redirecting his career it was the making of him.

The same cannot be said for the two main figures in the play itself. Geoffrey Streatfeild plays George Blake, a Cambridge-trained, patrician cold warrior who looks like a diffident civil servant but betrayed his country to the KGB and wound up with the prospect of spending 40 years in Wormwood Scrubs.

The opening scene finds him sounding out the prison librarian in the hope that the young Irishman played by Emmet Byrne might help him to escape.

This might sound far-fetched, but Sean Bourke’s description of his attempt goes even further. How the prison authorities and police could allow an ex-con to smuggle in a saw and return with a rope ladder, freeing one of the highest profile prisoners in the country, is a mystery.

While the opening scenes in Edward Hall’s production get rather closer to farce than is comfortable, the mood changes significantly with the appearance of designer Michael Pavelka’s third set, the luxurious Moscow apartment to which Blake is confined, writing his memoirs while closely watched over by a couple of comically sinister KGB agents, played with wit by Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Bourke accepted an invitation to spend a week behind the Iron Curtain with his old pal. However, given his part in the escape and the distinct possibility that this was all part of a British secret service plan to discredit Blake, the week soon became six months.

The heart of a play that is primarily about betrayal lies in the growing tensions between the prissy Englishmen, missing his wife and three children back in Blighty, and the flighty Irishman who drowned his sorrows in vodka. Pleasingly, he also trains the servant Zinaida played by Cara Horgan to sing “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”, providing two of the evening’s highlights.

The gold standard for pseudo-biographical plays about British espionage must be Alan Bennett’s double bill Single Spies. While Cell Mates gives Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne opportunities to shine, especially when their characters undergo extreme stress, it is a strange and not wholly successful play, given that it relies on a number of unlikely circumstances as a means of exploring the characters of the pair.

Where Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution both get deep into the hearts and minds of their Cambridge Spies, by the end of this piece, most viewers might feel that they have seen no more than an artist’s impression of the real George Blake and his friend Sean Bourke.