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Single Spies

A double bill - An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution
By Alan Bennett
A Bath Theatre Royal Production. New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and Touring
(2008)

Production photo

It was in nineteen thirties Cambridge that Guy Burgess became one of a group of young radical idealists, who saw most of the world around them in turmoil and found the idea of an ordered and just Communist state very appealing - so much so that they were prepared to betray their country in order to further its cause. It is in nineteen fifties Communist Russia that we (and eminent actress Coral Browne) meet Burgess - a man in exile, expelled for his espionage activities and living in a squalid apartment, watched suspiciously by his hosts. This is Nigel Havers as I have never seen him before - usually sartorially elegant and with a roguish charm, here he is semi-alcoholic, given to stealing food where he can, and is sloppily attired in sagging cardigan and baggy trousers. The roguish charm is still intact.

"I love London," he says, "I love England, but I cannot say I love my country!". The thing he misses most, however, is owning a suit from his Saville Row tailor. "Clothes are not the comrades' strong point". It is to this end that he has invited Browne to lunch - to take his measurements and organize the purchase.

Disregarding the serious subject of a double agent in exile, this is a lightweight piece - but full of Bennett's sparkling observational witty comedy - only forty minutes long and thoroughly enjoyable. It commences with the Eton Boating Song played on a balalaika, and concludes with a very poignant scene. Burgess is still in his seedy apartment and the snow is falling fast, but he stands erect in his new suit - the very epitome of a true upright English gentleman.

The second play is much more complex with interesting parallels drawn between the restoration of a Titian painting, discovering extra characters behind the front canvas, and the uncovering, one by one, of the group which came to be known as 'The Cambridge Spies'. Havers is now more true-to-type as the elegant and eminent art historian Anthony Blunt, who spent the war years in Intelligence and in nineteen forty five was appointed Surveyor of the King's Pictures, becoming Director of the Courtauld Institute in nineteen forty seven. Although his activities during the war years came to light in the sixties, he was protected by the Establishment and continued his work, at the same time undergoing frequent interrogation by Chubb, played by John Arthur who also took the part of the tailor in the first play. I had no idea British interrogators were so avuncular!

Janet Bird's sets brilliantly evoke the squalor and restriction of Burgess's life in Moscow, the tiny centre stage flat with enclosing walls surrounded by depressing semi darkness while mysterious figures lurk in the shadows, constantly watching.. In the second play the stylish Courtauld Institute switches easily to the Queen's Gallery with a profusion of paintings on the walls, and it is here that Blunt unexpectedly meets the Queen and there is much philosophical discussion about fakes and forgeries. Blunt's part in the spy ring was not publicly known, but maybe Her Majesty was more aware than others. "I was discussing painting," says Blunt. "I'm not sure she was!"

Diana Quick gives an excellent portrayal of Coral Browne, but I found I could not quite believe in her as the Queen. Perhaps Helen Mirren's representation is just too hard an act to follow. It is here too that the action begins to drag a little and seems over long.

Jack Ryder is Russian Tolya in Moscow and Colin an employee of Buckingham Palace. Both are small parts but he acquits himself well.

An Alan Bennett play is always a joy, and director Christopher Luscombe lets the dialogue speak for itself. Unfortunately in the vast auditorium of the Woking theatre it became a little lost and people were leaning forward trying to catch every word. Although it was very well performed and well presented it could benefit from a smaller and more intimate venue. Just the same - a very enjoyable evening.

Touring to High Wycombe, Southampton and Bath

Peter Lathan reviewed this production in Newcastle

Reviewer: Sheila Connor