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Single Spies

Alan Bennett
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
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How many theatres can boast a visit from the monarch two years in a row?

The Queen makes yet another royal appointment in Lakeland, in Alan Bennett’s diptych of plays Single Spies, after she also appeared (alongside Margaret Thatcher) in Moira Buffini’s Handbagged at Theatre by the Lake last year.

Presumably next year the Keswick venue will take on Peter Morgan’s The Audience, in which she copes with a room full of prime ministers?

Bennett, however, led the way in such sovereign casting back in 1988, when he imagined a Buckingham Palace corridor encounter between the Queen and her Surveyor of Pictures Anthony Blunt, eventually more notorious as the fifth man in the Cambridge spy ring.

A Question of Attribution still remains one of the writer’s most penetrating plays, with its gently barbed humour confronting the hypocrisy at the heart of an Establishment which preferred to turn a blind eye to treason, when it suited.

Nowadays, viewed in slightly more enlightened times, it’s also more revealing about the way in which several men, when forced to conceal their sexual proclivities, found spying for their country to be a natural extension to their clandestine activity.

Blunt and Guy Burgess—his partner in spying, and who features in Bennett’s accompanying play An Englishman Abroad—are both shown to carry a heavy burden for their treachery.

Burgess, played by Theo Fraser Steele, is found lonely and in diminished circumstances in his Moscow bolthole by visiting actress Coral Browne, while Blunt, even in James Duke’s svelte performance, seems equally scarred even when placed in much grander surroundings.

Karen Ascoe plays both Browne and Her Majesty with an imperial presence.

Bennett is our modern master of knowing his audience and can smoothly humour them at the same time as he’s being thought-provoking.

He’s also helped here by designer Louie Whitemore’s equally slick stage set which slides, surreptitiously, between Moscow and the Mall.

Reviewer: David Upton