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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - Single Spies

30th September to 6th November 2010.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two Britons spying for the Soviet Union, hit the headlines when they defected in 1951. They were welcomed by their Soviet spymasters and lived a rather Spartan existence in Moscow. It was there that Burgess met the actress Coral Browne, on tour in Hamlet, and this meeting provided the story for An Englishman Abroad, the first of the two one-act plays by Alan Bennett that make up Single Spies.

James Clyde played Burgess as a dissolute roué and managed to bring out the charm and charisma that Burgess undoubtedly possessed. Coral Browne (Melanie Jessop) is persuaded to take his measurements for a new suit and hat, which she later procures for him in London. The rather surreal meeting between the two of them in Burgess’s flat ends with a duet on piano and balalaika by Burgess and his boyfriend Tolya (Joe Marsh).

Burgess and Maclean were two of the Cambridge Spies who got away. Anthony Blunt was one who managed to stay and get immunity from prosecution in return for cooperating with the security authorities. The second play, A Question of Attribution, is set at the time that Blunt (David Yelland – a well-controlled portrayal of a rather unlikeable, cold man) is being questioned by security officer Chubb (James Clyde), while still holding down his job as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. A chance meeting with HMQ (impishly played by Melanie Jessop) in Buckingham Palace leaves Blunt surprised at the Queen’s insight (“I was talking about art; I’m not sure that she was”).

A lot of the play relates to a painting of Titian and a senator, which after cleaning reveals a third man, then with x-rays a fourth and the vague outline of a fifth. Geddit? After Burgess and Maclean, Kim Philby was outed, then Blunt, but the identity of the Fifth Man was never definitely established.

Both Burgess and Blunt say “it seemed the right thing to do at the time” and in the 1930s communism seemed a better option than fascism to the Cambridge intellectuals. Whether Burgess continued to think that he’d made the right choice while in exile in Moscow is debatable.

Alan Bennett’s plays are always worth seeing; this pair isn’t a bundle of laughs but it’s an interesting insight into espionage and the cold war.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

A two-act betrayal

Cambridge Spies encounter wit of Alan Bennett in Watermill double-bill

Single Spies: An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, at the Watermill, Bagnor, until November 6

Alan Bennett's way with words results in a script for these two plays that has Wilde-style humour frequently overlaying the piercing sadness felt by those caught up in the betrayals of two of the Cambridge Spies, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt.

The set for An Englishman Abroad was a dingy Moscow room in which Guy Burgess (James Clyde) spends his days, seemingly cheerful. A likeable man, he persuades actress Coral Browne (Melanie Jessop) to order new clothes for him from 'home' regretting that before leaving England he didn't get "a good set of NHS gnashers."

Their lighthearted conversation has an unspoken undercurrent, although when asked about the "so unfunny" Maclean, Burgess speaks of being locked in "a terrible tandem."

He misses gossip and his frail mother whom he cannot visit and maintains that he is proud of being impeccably Marxist nevertheless singing (mockingly? - who knows) Gilbert and Sullivan's He Is An Englishman. Perhaps, in the end, that, too, was something of which he was proud.

Anthony Blunt (David Yelland) describes himself as a cold fish in Bennett's second play A Question of Attribution and comes over as less likeable than the easy-going Burgess.

A clever parallel theme has Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, uncovering the secrets in a reputed Titian in the Queen's collection while being interrogated by Chubb (James Clyde) to flush out further spies by identifying photographs.

Chubb, a small, unpleasant man from Purley, envies the upper-class Blunt his knowledge and lifestyle and punctuates the interrogation by attempting to pick up tips on improving his own knowledge. The long conversations which Blunt has with the Queen (Melanie Jessop) bring out the pleasure which Her Majesty must have had in being able to chat with this knowledgeable man and the distress which she must surely have felt at his betrayal.

It becomes increasingly apparent that there is an underlying meaning to her words for Blunt is warned "be careful how you go up the ladder, you may have a nasty fall."

Finally, Chubb warns "the wolves are getting closer" - Blunt's promised anonymity was finally disclosed in 1979.

These are clever plays, the times, the sharp humour and grimly-hinted undercurrents brought vividly to life by an excellent cast. A thought-provoking, absorbing piece of theatre.


There are reviews at the Oxford Times ("Jamie Glover’s well-managed revival"), Marlborough People ("a wonderfully acted, written and directed pair of plays which will make you laugh - a lot "), The Public Reviews ("[An Englishman Abroad:] pure gold. Worth a 4-star rating"), British Theatre Guide ("a compelling production thoroughly enjoyed by the large appreciative audience"), The Basingstoke Gazette ("a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two unlikely spies, masterfully brought to life by the players ").