Single Spies

by Alan Bennett; dir Jane Railton
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
4  – 11 February 2012


Single Spies is actually a collection of two short plays by Alan Bennett, both concerning members of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring which caused such a scandal in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Both plays are rich with the dialogue that Bennett is famous for and explore an interesting side of these infamous characters.

An Englishman Abroad sees Guy Burgess (Phil Reynolds) several years after his flight/defection to Russia. He has a grubby little flat in Moscow and is being visited by Coral Browne (Cathryn Bowler), who is performing in Moscow as part of a touring show. Guy wants Coral to visit his tailor in England and have some suits sent out to him, the ‘comrades’ not being up to scratch in tailoring quality. But behind the mundane chat emerges a portrait of a sad and lonely man, naturally gregarious, who has been cut off from friends and high-living by the actions he has taken due to heartfelt beliefs.

The second play, A Question of Attribution, features Anthony Blunt (Mark Wiszowaty). Unlike Burgess, Blunt had remained in Britain and been discovered as a spy; however, to avoid scandal, this information was not revealed to the public and he was allowed to keep a job as ‘Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures’ (the Queen’s art adviser). The plot here is more complex and so is the subtle layering of meaning. Blunt’s time in the play is divided between being interviewed by MI5 man Chubb (Peter Brooks), who shows him photographs and asks him to identify people who may also have been spies, and pursuing the question of authenticity of a painting purportedly by Titian. The painting, which appears to be a portrait of two men, turns out, after cleaning and x-ray to also contain three other men who had been painted over – with clear parallels to the discovery of the spy ring itself. The central theme is around the nature of fakes and this is brought out well in a roundabout conversation between Blunt and the Queen (Anne-marie Greene).

Both plays are marvellously intricate and deep and well presented – with a short slide show at the beginning to fill in any of the audience who are unaware of the spy ring story. All the performances by the cast were good to excellent and it is hard to single out individuals, but I should particularly like to commend Elliot Relton-Williams as the Russian lover assigned to Burgess, Peter Brooks as the security man forging his own amateur way through the history of art, and Anne-marie Greene as a young and feisty Queen Elizabeth.

A great evening out all round.


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