Single Spies at the Rose Theatre Kingston
In this, the year of playwright Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday, Rose Theatre Kingston is reviving his double bill Single Spies, first performed in 1988 and winner of an Olivier Award. The uniting theme of the two pieces is the Cambridge spies, who made the news in post WWII Britain for passing information to the Soviet Union. With sets that drip with elegance and Bennett’s inimitably witty writing, the plays make for intelligent and refined entertainment.
An Englishman Abroad is first up. We come upon actress Coral Browne and Burgess, an exiled spy, in his Moscow home. She has agreed to carry out some errands for him: having a suit tailored for him, for one. Contrary to our expectations of a British traitor, we find that Burgess has a lot of love for England, that in fact he yearns for it. He name drops profusely as he asks Browne for news of Auden or Forster and reminisces about getting drunk with H G Wells. He is distressed to hear that London has changed since he left.
Alexander Hanson is a superbly debonair Burgess with a cut-glass English accent. His winsome idiosyncrasies and smiling charisma conceal a sad nostalgia and loneliness. Helen Schlesinger plays Browne as a real theatre darling, prone to the occasional fiery outburst. Her many droll lines are expertly delivered: “actresses are excused newspapers much as delicate boys used to be excused games.” The lights lower to Burgess – in fine voice – singing Gilbert & Sullivan’s For He Is an Englishman.
A Question of Attribution introduces us to Anthony Blunt, an elderly Soviet spy who works as a prestigious art historian and frequents Buckingham Palace. He has confessed in return for immunity but knows that his anonymity may soon be overthrown. Schlesinger returns, this time to play a dry-humoured Queen Elizabeth II, and her clipped accent and neat appearance are spot on. Michael Pennington is a sophisticated and likeable Blunt. Dialogue between the two is composed of sly metaphor, which perfectly showcases Bennett’s slick way with words. Her Majesty wonders if any of her paintings are fakes, while Blunt posits that there is a difference between being fake and being other than what people expect.
The plays explore what it is to be English, and the front one displays to the world. When the lights go up, you’ll want to go home and read up on the enigmatic true tale of the Cambridge spies.
Single Spies is on at Rose Theatre Kingston until 11th October 2014, for further information or to book visit here.