Alan Bennett is a playwright that most are familiar with, if not for his plays then certainly for his films (which started as stage productions), History Boys and Lady in the Van. From my personal point of view, he never fails to astound with the topics he chooses to pursue and this particular piece pushes the boundaries, further.
There are two individual spy stories relayed, each one covering a myriad of emotions, heart-breaking with cringe-worthy moments which combine to create the humour. Bennett is an honest story teller who excels in finding the sublime in the ridiculous. An Englishman Abroad (previously a television move) has Guy Burgess as the central character, played by Nicholas Farrell who connected with the character on many levels. Burgess was a British radio producer who died in 1963, he was a member of the Cambridge Spy Ring that passed secrets to and from the Soviets before and during the Cold War.
Belinda Lang plays Coral Browne who was an Australia-American actress and who met Burgess in 1958. Lang plays her with a great deal of humour, grace and intelligence. The chemistry between Lang and Farrell is notable and the set embodies the piece, too.
A Question of Attribution which was also a television movie follows Sir Anthony Blunt who was an art historian but also a member of the Cambridge Five. David Robb plays Sir Anthony, his performance is witty and yet incredibly moving. Blunt is under scrutiny from Chubb (Farrell) and the dialogue moves backwards and forwards between them seamlessly. However, once Her Majesty the Queen joins the equation while Sir Anthony is at Buckingham Palace on a painting swapping exercise, there is a shift in the story. Lang’s portrayal of Her Majesty The Queen rivals that of Dame Helen Mirren’s. The interaction from there became more engaging due to the introduction of such a well known figure. The set for this particular piece was glorious, as one would imagine, the length and depth of the stage at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre lends itself to the grandeur Buckingham Palace.
This is Bennett at his best, observational, whimsical and deeply moving. It’s brilliantly cast and I am including the supporting cast in that. Single Spies stays at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 27th February and with a full house on the evening that I was fortunate enough to be present, this could be a sell out!
Visit http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk for more information and to book tickets.
Photograph credits: Alastair Muir