Single Spies

Alan Bennett

Watermill Theatre, Newbury

(2010)

Review by Robin Strapp

Alan Bennett has earned the title of being a 'National Treasure' and his writing is both sharp-witted and clever.

The Watermill's sterling production of Single Spies is a double bill with similar themes. Both plays fit superbly into the Watermill's intimate space with a simple effective set design by Andrew D Edwards.

In An Englishman Abroad, the Cambridge educated and disgraced spy Guy Burgess, splendidly played by James Clyde, is living in a rather squalid Moscow flat. He is under constant surveillance from the Soviet secret service. What he misses most is news and gossip from England and is delighted when Australian actress Coral Browne (Melanie Jessop) arrives to perform in a Moscow theatre. She is invited to dine at his flat with the instructions to "bring a tape measure" - most intriguing.

When she arrives he is drunk and insists on playing his only record, "Who stole my heart away" by Jack Buchanan who was Browne's lover. What Burgess really wants is a new suit from his London tailor and charges Browne with the task of sourcing it.

Back in England Browne manages to persuade the tailor to make the suit although bespoke pyjamas were impossible to find since the shopkeeper refused to supply a double-crosser. Caustically Browne responds, " Must traitors sleep in the buff?"

Burgess eventually gets his clothes but his life has changed forever.

In A Question of Attribution, the second much deeper play of the evening, we follow the renowned art historian and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures Anthony Blunt who was also a Soviet spy. David Yelland perfectly captured the upper middle class 'gentleman' who suspects that a Titian painting hanging in the Royal gallery may in fact be a forgery. His clipped language and performance was a delight. Melanie Jessop is splendid as Her Majesty the Queen, questioning the purpose of Art, life, and patriotism as she meets him in the long gallery.

Ably supported by Joe Marsh as Colin and Simon Wright as the restorer and skillfully directed by Jamie Glover, this was a compelling production thoroughly enjoyed by the large appreciative audience.

Runs until 6th November