SINGLE SPIES: Alan Bennett
(AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD, A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION)
Birmingham Rep, to 27 February 2016
0121 236 4455
Runs 2h 10m, one interval.
Review: Alexander Ray Edser, Birmingham Rep, 19 February 2016
Quality inside and outside, through and through
There’s a bit of a dilemma with SINGLE SPIES. They are mint Bennett, but they have an intimacy about them, a delicacy of wit that is lost in a large space like the Birmingham Rep. Both plays are excellently performed, but the intimacy is somehow akin to an a very English tact and it seems to me the plays are about Englishness. Having said that, though, the quality shines through.
Bennett is so skilful. He writes here two plays which are about spies, and through this prism looks at the nature of Englishness, in a Chekhovian way he picks out the strengths of the ‘stiff upper lip’ brigade, while exposing their follies and the need for change, which can be tinged with regret.
The first, AN ENGLISHMAN ABROAD, is the more emotionally charged. Underpinning the comedy, the outrageous behaviour is a nagging sense of regret, not for past actions, but for a lost way of life. It is like a toothache, that never lets us come easefully to rest.
Nicholas Farrell portrays all this in a consummate performance. Cambridge ease, alcohol pickled, louche, it is all there, and never explicit, but always evident a total, unremitting sadness. Belinda Lang gives us Coral Browne in a carefully judged performance. By not pushing too hard the larger-than-life aspects we never lose sight of the fact that CB was also class.
A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION, centres around Blunt’s attempt to investigate the Titian painting, AN ALEGORY OF PRUDENCE, while at the same time being debriefed by MI5 officer Chubb. Here we delight in the intellectual games of unveiling characters behind characters in the painting, while at the same time unmasking spies behind spies in the real world. But Bennett does not rely on simple nostalgia for past times, he brings class to the fore. Chubb is learning about art history (and knows his stuff), while a Palace servant knows more about art history in the real world than Blunt’s privileged student.
Strong performances all round. Wonderful to watch the scenes between Blunt and Chubb (David Robb and Nicholas Farrell) as the latter, oh so politely, interrogates the former.
Rachel Kavanaugh finds the right rhythms and it all moves along smoothly in Peter McKintosh’s designs; an additional delight are the quality and cut of the posh people’s clothes.
Belinda Lang: Coral Browne
Nicholas Farrell: Guy Burgess
David Young: Tolya
David Robb: Tailor
Paul Grunert: Shop Assistant
David Robb: Anthony Blunt
Paul Grunert: Restorer
Nicholas Farrell: Chubb
David Young: Phillips
Joseph Prowen: Colin
Belinda Lang: HMQ
Giles Coram: Footman
Simon Hepworth: Footman
Pamela Hardman: Secretary
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Set and Costume Designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Composer: Terry Davies
Sound Designer:: Dan Hoole
Projection Designer: Duncan McLean
Casting Director: Gabrielle Dawes