Single Spies

Alan Bennett
A Bath Theatre Royal production
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Production photo from "A Question of Attribution"

With the demise both of Soviet Communism and the Soviet Union itself, with the events depicted in the plays taking place between forty and fifty years ago, and with all of the main participants (with the exception, of course, of the Queen) being dead, one might be tempted to wonder why it is worthwhile reviving these two short plays, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.

Bennett's writing is witty and clever, but would that be enough to support a full theatrical evening? The answer, of course, is that, like all good drama, the plays transcend their ostensible subject matter: whilst remaining firmly rooted in the fifties and sixties, they have the universality of metaphor - and they are entertaining.

The evening is billed as "the Olivier Award winning comedy" and the shorter An Englishman Abroad is the more immediately accessible and comic of the two. Director Christopher Luscombe points up the comedy with is introductory music - the "Eton Boating Song" played on the balalaika and a beautiful moment towards the end when Burgess, still in Moscow, dresses in his new suit sent from England while illuminated from above by a spotlight as snow floats to earth, accompanied by a very loud recording of "He is an Englishman" from HMS Pinofore. A moment of pure delight, and one which, rather than being an attempt to get a cheap laugh (although it did get laughs), was actually quite a poignant moment which encapsulated a major theme of the play (and, in fact, of much of Bennett's work): the nature of Englishness.

It is typical of the obliqueness of Benentt's approach that this theme is explored in Russia, a country that couldn't be much more foreign, through characters who are, respectively, actress Coral Browne, a blunt Australian, and Guy Burgess, a member of the establishment (Eton, Cambridge, the Foreign Office, the BBC and MI5) who had knowingly and deliberately betrayed everything he represented.

A Question of Attribution is altogether a more complex piece and takes the theme to a deeper level. On the surface we have two strands, the ongoing monthly investigation into what and who Anthony Blunt did or did not know and an examination of "attribution" and what forgery is, taking in such concepts as "pupil of" and "school of" and, indeed, the nature of art. The two overlap and inform each other and inevitably give rise to questions about the nature of patriotism. Bennett doesn't provide any easy answers to the underlying questions but we are left pondering on the moral and ethical implications of knowingly leaving a recruiter of spies for not just a foreign power but also a antipathetic political philosophy in his place at the very heart of the establishment.

In this production, the dual role of Burgess/Blunt is taken by Nigel Havers and that of Coral Browne/the Queen by Diana Quick. Both well respected and experienced actors turn in perfectly acceptable performances but there was no spark between then (particularly necessary, I think, in Englishman) and in both plays they seemed to be playing well within their comfort zones. There were times when, as Blunt, Havers seemed to be retreating into the upper-class persona which has, to an extent, become his trademark. One could not imagine this Blunt having strong enough convictions to do what he did, nor were there any signs of the excellent teacher which Blunt had the reputation of being. Thus the sparkle of Bennett's dialogue was somewhat dimmed and there were, it has to be said, some longueurs.

The names of Havers and Quick (and of Jack Ryder who plays two cameo roles) will certainly bring in the audiences but, although on the whole they will have an enjoyable evening, they may find A Question of Attribution a tad disappointing.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production in Woking

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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