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Review: Single Spies @ Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub

Single Spies, Alan Bennett’s 1988 double bill about the Cambridge Spies in the years after their unmasking by the authorities, is an astoundingly accomplished piece of writing. The two plays – An Englishman Abroad and A Question Of Attribution – are treated conservatively and classily in this touring co-production from Chichester Festival Theatre and Birmingham Rep, making way for Bennett’s craftsmanship to truly shine. Together, they are powerful reminders of just why Bennett deserves his ever-present ‘national treasure’ epithet.

Both plays place infamous Soviet spies under the microscope. The first, An Englishman Abroad, paints a bathetic portrait of the exiled Guy Burgess whiling away his remaining days behind the Iron Curtain. The second, A Question Of Attribution, examines Anthony Blunt, whose traitorous past is a mystery to most and who spends his post-war years lecturing on art at the Courtauld Institute, advising the Queen on what painting to hang where, and divulging – or not as the case may be – Soviet secrets to British Intelligence Officers.

Nicholas Farrell is Burgess in An Englishman Abroad. Belinda Lang is Coral Browne, the Australian-American actress who visits him in Moscow after the death of Stalin. Far from leading a high-profile, glamorously secretive life, Farrell’s Burgess is a faded soul drowning the bleak reality of communism in the bottom of a bottle and reminiscing endlessly about the London he left behind, the London he misses terribly. Farrell’s is an elegant, unhurried performance, filled with quiet pathos yet stirringly brave at the same time. There is a delectable chemistry between his wheezing, reform-club gent and Lang’s uncompromisingly matter-of-fact Coral.

In A Question Of Attribution, David Robb’s Blunt is a guarded intellectual with a cut-glass accent, who litters his conversational sparring with both intelligence officer and monarch with apt – and quite fascinating – bites of art history. Robb, best known for his work on Downton Abbey, is superb, managing to convey the stormiest internal seas with barely a flicker of external emotion. Farrell and Lang multi-role as Chubb, his mild-mannered interrogator and the Queen respectively, in two more astute performances; a lengthy discussion between Robb’s Blunt and Lang’s Elizabeth II sparkles.

As a play, A Question Of Attribution is perhaps more allegorically heavy-handed than the more sober and reflective An Englishman Abroad. Its pontification on the question of art forgery is a potent, if a little unsubtle, metaphor for our concepts of fidelity and treachery nor does it tug at the patriotic heartstrings like its forerunner but it is nevertheless an invigoratingly smart piece of theatre. Its structure is so solid, its dialogue so precise, and its subtext so fiercely present that one is simply captivated, both by Bennett’s message and by his ingenuity as a playwright.

Rachel Kavanaugh’s astute direction Peter McKintosh versatile, rich, and unobtrusive design combine to shape these two plays into a cohesive, coherent whole, and Farrell, Robb and Lang all put in exceptionally well-judged performances. It is Bennett’s praises that will rightly be sung by those leaving the theatre, however. The two constituent works of Single Spies, although first produced nearly 30 years ago, are still effortlessly thought-provoking and exquisitely sophisticated plays.

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