REVIEW: Single Spies at Chichester Festival Theatre

Nicholas Farrell, Belinda Lang and David Robb in Single Spies. Picture: Hugo Glendinning
Nicholas Farrell, Belinda Lang and David Robb in Single Spies. Picture: Hugo Glendinning
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Single Spies. The subject matter is in the name, surely? Not so.

While Alan Bennett’s double-bill of plays does focus on two members of the Cambridge Five spy ring, it’s really about the disconnect between how we appear versus who we really are.

When the subject of conversation turns to forgeries, it doesn’t take a genius to realise what Liz is really asking the ex-spy

And this co-production with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre realised the humour and pathos found in the subtext.

In the first act, An Englishman Abroad, the question of identity is framed around Guy Burgess’ quest to buy a suit from his tailors in London despite being exiled in Moscow – a metaphor for his complex relationship with his birth country.

Nicholas Farrell captured the eccentricity of the chain-drinking, scruffy ex-spy – and managed to eat a particularly juicy tomato while delivering his lines.

Playing opposite him was Belinda Lang as Coral Browne, an outspoken, fur-loving actress who Burgess charged with buying his suit, whose catty one-liners went down a storm with the audience.

In the second act, A Question of Attribution, Sir Anthony Blunt – in charge of the Queen’s art collection – talks art history with Her Majesty, also played by Lang (in the weaker of her two roles).

But when the subject of conversation turns to forgeries, it doesn’t take a genius to realise what Liz is really asking the ex-spy.

Aside from delivering an interesting lesson about art, David Robb as Blunt captures the world-weariness of his character, and his resignation to his fate as his treachery begins to go public.

By the end of each act, you felt sorry for the two spies, having gotten to know a little of the person behind the infamy and laughed with them along the way.