Thursday, 15 November 2018

Not quite up to Bennett’s usual standards

YOU have to be careful with national institutions - criticising them might be seen as treason.

YOU have to be careful with national institutions - criticising them might be seen as treason.

Alan Bennett is nothing if not a national institution, so this reviewer is treading carefully with the two one-acters which make up

Single Spies

They have been around for a long time and both An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution have become amateur drama festival favourites, usually only tackled by capable groups on small stages.

What about this professional revival then? The ingredients are first class: a team of proven performers in Belinda Lang, Nicholas Farrell and David Robb - the doctor from Downton Abbey.

The set is mighty and impressive, giving an image of the vastness of Russia in the first play and the opulence of royal abodes in the second.

The subject is pregnant with possibilities — the first a story about the traitor Guy Burgess exiled to a poky flat in Moscow, drinking himself to an early death, lonely and wondering how on earth his glittering potential had come to this; the second a fictionalised encounter with the Queen and another of the infamous Cambridge spies, Anthony Blunt.

But despite all that the night lacked pace. It might have been because these are two complete plays, so combining them gives too rich a diet of drama. It might have been because the Cambridge spy ring no longer captivates the imagination in the way it did 30 years ago.

It might have been because the intimacy of the encounters was swamped by the grand set.

And it might have been the performances.

These plays are not about spying — they’re about regret and self-deception, with Farrell playing a convincingly louche Burgess and Robb an arrogant and self-satisfied Blunt.

The one tasked to bring out both their stories is actress Belinda Lang — first as the Australian actress Coral Browne after she met Burgess in Moscow, then as the Queen confronting Blunt with his treachery in an oblique and entertainingly written way.

Belinda Lang on TV is a delight — measured and able to use the full range of vocal and facial expression. But on this stage that didn’t translate: her voice was harsh, strident and mannered, and her movements were frequently stiff.

That didn’t help. But the real issue seemed to be in the writing itself and coming from such an acute observer as Bennett that’s a surprise.

We’re invited to feel some sympathy for Burgess as he rolls around his squalid flat, monitored by his minders, missing England. But he’s a drunk and the victim of his own bad judgement — there was little sympathy from this quarter.

There was still less for Robb’s very good interpretation of Blunt. His sense of superiority was quite ugly and while Bennett successfully belittled Blunt’s achievement, the play seemed to lack a heart and was more of an intellectual exercise.

However, as a piece of history and to show where we were as a society not all that long ago, these are useful reminders.

Until Saturday.

Mike Rowbottom

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