Single Spies – Review – York Theatre Royal

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By Karl Hornsey, November 2018

The decision by Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake to transfer its summer season to the York Theatre Royal this month has proven to be an inspired one. Ten actors in four plays over 12 days represents a huge challenge for all involved, but judging by the performances in Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, they have hit upon a winning formula. Sense & Sensibility, Bold Girls and Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense make up the rest of the schedule, but we were lucky enough to have tickets to Single Spies, a double bill directed by Tom Littler.

I’ve been fascinated by the subject of the Cambridge Spies for many years, so for one of the finest writers of the last generation or two in Alan Bennett to have written a stage play on the matter was always likely to make me as happy as a pig in the proverbial. Throw in some wonderful performances by Theo Fraser Steele, James Duke and Karen Ascoe and this was a near-flawless evening of entertainment in such delightful surroundings.

single spies review york theatre royal november 2018 alan bennett

“Remarkable performance”

Single Spies consists of two acts – ‘An Englishman Abroad’ and ‘A Question of Attribution’ – both focusing on a different aspect of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring, the former on Guy Burgess and the latter on Anthony Blunt. While the subject matter is of course deadly serious and not one to be cheapened in any way, there’s no doubt that there has always been a somewhat comical or maybe even farcical side to the whole affair, either in its characters or the situations they found themselves in, and who better than Bennett to hone in on that in his writing.

single spies review york theatre royal november 2018 alan bennett Karen Ascoe‘An Englishman Abroad’ is set in Burgess’s tiny flat in Moscow in 1958 and centres on his real-life meeting with actress Coral Browne. Burgess had already been in the Soviet Union for seven years by this point and his feelings of being thoroughly fed up with his lot, and of a lingering self-pity, are demonstrated brilliantly by Theo Fraser Steele in a truly remarkable performance. His near two-hander with Karen Ascoe as Browne would be worth seeing just on its own, but to then have the pleasure of enjoying ‘A Question of Attribution’ was a real treat.


This second play beautifully merges three aspects of Anthony Blunt’s life – his work as an art restorer, his interrogation by MI5 and his relationship with The Queen, with whom he took on the role as personal art advisor. Bennett takes the restoration of a work by Titian and layers it with the comparison to the Cambridge Spies, gradually delving deeper into Blunt’s character during a lengthy conversation with Her Majesty that marks her out as far more perceptive than Blunt must have thought.

Ascoe is superb as Her Royal Highness, while James Duke pitches his portrayal of Blunt quite perfectly in a captivating display that leaves one trying to work out what Blunt must have felt as the net finally closed in on him after so many years of getting away with his duplicity. It’s rare that I can come away from an evening such as this without something to quibble about it, but that’s the position I found myself in, and to do so after two plays, featuring many of the same actors in challenging roles, made it a truly outstanding experience.


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