Single Spies – Review – Leeds Grand

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single spies leeds grand theatre review

Single Spies – Review

Leeds Grand, April 2016

by Sandra Callard

Alan Bennett’s dry, wry and clever humour is an accepted national institution. His writing is instantly familiar, and his wit is as enjoyable as a cream tea at Betty’s Cafe. His two-hander play Single Spies, now being staged at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, was written in 1987. It brings this same humour to the world of James Bond. It features two stories of the infamous spies, Sir Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess. the agents passed secrets to the Russians during the Cold War.

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Cambridge men, both of great intellect and position, they managed to keep their espionage hidden from the establishment and MI5/6 for many years. The pair did untold harm to British security. Here we have Bennett’s take on each of them in turn, from very different viewpoints. The first play, An Englishman Abroad, takes us into the somewhat down-at-heel flat of Guy Burgess. He lives alone in Moscow in the years of his exile after he finally fled Britain. The second, A Question of Attrition, could not be more different. We see Anthony Blunt in conversation with the Queen during his years of spying. At the time he was still in the trusted position of Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and Director of the Courthauld Institute of Art.

Nicholas Farrell plays Burgess in an encounter with the actress Coral Brown, who met him whilst playing Shakespeare in Moscow. Farrell gives us a Burgess who shows no hint of justification for his treason. Indeed his sardonic humour has an appealing touch. He rues the poor living and social conditions of the Russia he sold his country out for.

“Avalanche of intellectualism”

Brown is deliciously played by Belinda Lang, as she skilfully reproduces the accent and nuances of 1950’s BBC speech. She elicits some sympathy for the traitor. Even going so far as to order some English clothing for him. She feels sorry for him, living far below the standards he left behind.

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The second play sees David Robb as an aloof and urbane Blunt, before he was unmasked in 1979. The setting is the polar opposite to the first play. In the first we have Burgess’s slightly grotty Moscow flat. In the second we have the splendour of Buckingham Palace.

The Queen provides a second part for Belinda Lang who, quite inexplicably, plays the Queen as a dotty old lady, grinning inanely and chatting continually to Blunt. She then begins to make veiled remarks about fake pictures and things not being as they seem. Is she suddenly suspicious of Blunt? I have no idea. Neither did most of the audience as they began to fidget and yawn.

Alan Bennett is a local boy and can do no wrong in Leeds. We come out in droves to watch his work and leave the theatre highly satisfied. But on this occasion, the second half let us down. Although wordy to a fault, Robb’s Blunt did provide some clever humour. But it was cushioned to such a degree by an avalanche of intellectualism, that the joke was almost suffocated before it could creep out.

Farrell’s Burgess got off to a clever start, even to the point of almost liking the bloke, but the second half of Single Spies was bogged down in a surfeit of words that we did not like or need. The halting and polite applause said it all.

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