Cell Mates at Hampstead Theatre
Bad habits are difficult to break, and they become even more dangerous when they unnecessarily affect our loved ones. With Cell Mates, Simon Gray masterly writes about how the betrayal of friends can hurt more than that against the State.
George Blake (Geoffrey Streatfeild), of Egyptian-Danish descent, is sentenced to 42 years at Wormwood Scrubs Prison for treason. He passed information from MI5 to Russian intelligence, when secret operations were in place across Berlin at the time of the Cold War. In the same prison, Sean Bourke (Emmet Byrne) is serving a shorter term. This “single Irish fellow” agrees to help Blake escape. With the support of a few other of Sean’s friends who believe in the good cause of the double agent, the Russian spy reaches Moscow. Once there, he invites his cell mate to pay him a visit, just for few days.
The core part of the piece consists of the treachery played by Blake to Bourke. The betrayal may find reason in the typical practice of deceit by secret agents, but, as the disloyal plan is revealed, we discover at the source are two of the most human fears: loneliness and jealousy. In the sumptuous house he now has in the Russian capital, Blake lives with only the company of a servant and a tape recorder. The feeble man who sought refuge and safety in the promises of his cell mate at the beginning of the piece, all of a sudden changes into a cold and “pompous liar”, consumed by the suspicion his friend would publish a book on their story before him. On the other hand, the apparently arrogant Bourke, who first appears on the stage proclaiming poetry in a deluxe cell, is transformed into a powerless victim, inspiring the audience’s compassion.
Based on a true story, the production captures our attention with its dramatic narrative. Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird – who play the KGB Committee members – inject a much-needed dose of humour into the show. Indeed, the dialogues among more characters seem to work better, mixing what is both said or unspoken with comic lines. The elaborate settings, though, require quite a long time for the scene changes. These are the only breaks in between long sequences, the pace of which already drag too much. Especially at the beginning, the slow rhythm diminishes the effect of the dialogues and of the tender bond blooming between the two men after the breakout.
Overall, this funny and moving play takes its time to build on the strength of its emotional elements, although the story does appeal for its striking humanity.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Cell Mates is at Hampstead Theatre from 30th November 2017 until 20th January 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Cell Mates here: