by Alan Bennett
Presented by Chichester Festival Theatre & Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewer: Sam Chipman
In his book Writing Home Bennett confesses that espionage interests him “not a bit”, but the idea of exile and that people can be so involved in the detail you cannot see the whole picture ring out in Single Spies. Bennett’s award-winning comedy consists of two acts, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. Following the lives of two members of the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring in the 1950s, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, these witty and compelling plays span the globe from Moscow to London.
Peter McKintosh’s design works cleverly for both plays, with the red carpet both evoking Soviet Russia and of the grandeur of Buckingham Palace. Windows showing pictures of Stalin are exchanged for gild-framed paintings during the interval.
In An Englishman Abroad, Guy Burgess, played by Nicholas Farrell, is found alone in Moscow 1958. The rather disheveled character who has been exiled finds he does not fit into Russian society. Farrell is well cast as this castaway and has a real sensitivity in finding the voice of a lonely man who cannot stand the regime he once idolised. Belinda Lang narrates the tale as Coral Browne, actor and friend to Burgess as their relationship begins to fade away.
The second play, A Question of Attribution show us a snapshot of Anthony Blunt, played by Downton Abbey star David Robb, as he is interrogated for his links to communism. Robb gives a suitably dry performance, really grasping just how resigned Blunt is to his fate. A candid interrogation carried out by the queen herself, played by Belinda Lang, under the guise of art forgery is the high point of the evening, as Bennett puts words into the mouth of the monarch that a great deal of us would like to know more about.
It would be interesting to see the effect a smaller, more intimate venue would have on this production, as it explores the intricacies of two men who’s vulnerabilities are exposed under threat of exposure and loneliness. Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction is sensitive, keeping the production steady and never allowing it to rest on its back foot. Burgess and Blunt do not attempt to justify their betrayal, nor go into detail about their actions, which allows us to peer into their world’s with a little more empathy than we would perhaps otherwise.
Bennett’s mischievous and witty writing hits the mark in just the wry fashion one would expect – not for those who like fast moving action, but a fascinating, compelling watch with wit galore.
Playing at Birmingham Rep until 27th February, continuing its tour until 30th April 2016.