Review: Single Spies at the Marlowe Theatre
Singles Spies by Alan Bennett took the audience back to the 1960s this week, as it made a stop in Canterbury as part of its national tour.
Single Spies is a two part play. The first is titled An Englishman Abroad, and is based on actress Coral Brown’s encounter with Guy Burges in Moscow in 1958. The second part is called A Question of Attribution, and sees Anthony Blunt in discussion with the Queen as her Surveyor of Pictures, and MI5 agents in the late 1960s. Both acts are portrayals of two of the best-known members of ‘the Cambridge Five’, a spy ring recruited at Cambridge University in the 1930s. However, Bennett was more interested in exile as the subject rather than espionage when discussing the play.
Nicholas Farrell embodies that rather well as Guy Burgess, the disgraced British excile who had been recruited to be Russian spy in An Englishman Abroad. Farrell and Belinda Lang, who plays Coral Brown, interact beautifully as Burgess attempted to extract any and all information about England from her in hopes of living vicariously through her. Their interaction about mutual acquaintances and the differences in Moscow and London highlights Farrell’s ability to convey the perfect balance between nostalgia and desperation while Brown’s pity is shown through her patience. Lang also shines through her use of comic timing, as she narrates her thoughts mixed in with the facts of the situation.
In the second half, A Question of Attribution saw David Robb, acting as Anthony Blunt, take centre stage. Robb portrayed Blunt’s arrogance and tiredness effectively in the face of relentless questioning from the MI5 officer, Chubb, played by Farrell. In contrast to the first half, the second appeared to be a lot more secretive and deceptive in conversation, through the constant use of art and paintings as a metaphor. This was particularly seen in Blunt’s conversation with the Queen, played by Lang, as they discussed the idea of secrets being concealed beneath the outer canvas.
A Question of Attribution allowed the audience to learn more about Blunt through his interactions with different individuals, however, An Englishman Abroad only shows Burgess through a short snippet of a single day and very limited interaction with only one individual. While this made the acts seem unequal in energy, they made an overall fascinating and brief insight into the lives of two spies, as they attempted to hold onto their pride whilst they lost everything else they held dear. The play is a perfect watch for individuals who enjoy reliving the British politics of the 60s and 70s.