Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Single Spies’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 27th February
Alan Bennett was, I believe, the first playwright to put words into Her Majesty’s mouth. Many have done so since of course, but in 1983 it was pretty damned daring. If he’d got it wrong, he might have been transferred to The Tower. But, being Bennett, he didn’t. And it’s still very funny today.
HMQ returns unexpectedly to The Palace after an abortive attempt to open a swimming pool that’s sprung a leak. Instead of an afternoon gleaning expertise on pumps and filtration systems, she runs into Sir Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, in her private gallery. They talk about the veracity of her ‘accumulation’ of art. After all, she says, “Your function is to prove my pictures are fakes.”
In a wonderful example of writing on both sides of the paper, Bennett is being wholly metaphorical. Blunt was the ‘fake’, later exposed as a spy who’d rounded up Cambridge colleagues to work for the Russians. More recently it was revealed that the Queen knew all about it. So the veracity she is probing is his own. And when he talks about cleaning a Titian to expose additional unknown figures in the background…the analogy is complete.
David Robb is an excellent, urbane, servile and straight-backed Blunt. His body language alone makes it clear he knows that she knows. Belinda Lang is shrewd and spiky as his employer; never quite behaving in an un-magisterial manner, but being deadly and direct with her interrogation.
Bennett gives her his best moments (well, she is The Queen!) as she moans about portrait artists who not only fail to get her likeness, but can’t get her horse right either; and how she has far too many Annunciations in her collection.
Blunt is really a communist snob, visiting galleries only when they are closed to the proletariat. Back in his office, he’s also being questioned by MI5. Nicholas Farrell plays his inquisitor like a barely benign bulldog doing an impression of Inspector Jack Frost. He tries to ‘help’ Blunt recognise slides of his accomplishes…whilst attempting to grasp an understanding of fine art. Once again, Bennett is writing two comedies at once, to great effect.
In fact the two plays that make up ‘Single Spies’ were written half a dozen years apart. The first, “An Englishman Abroad” is a much slighter affair about Blunt’s associate Guy Burgess in his Moscow years. If anything, it’s even funnier – and acerbically so. The paintings on show now are all stern images of dearly departed Stalin
Nicholas Farrell is a hugely comfortable actor and his portrayal of the shabby, shambling, former informant is a delight. By 1958 he was a faded celebrity. Nothing much happens in the play save for his efforts to encourage the visiting Australian actress Coral Browne (Lang again) to measure him for a much needed new suit. He clearly misses Blighty, but Blighty doesn’t miss him. “What do people say about me in England”, he asks. To which she replies with Aussie bluntness, “They don’t much, anymore”. For him, being stuck in Moscow is like having to stay up in Cambridge during the long vac.
It’s a warming portrait of a saddened man, reduced to playing Gilbert and Sullivan duets with a balalaika. Strangely, Bennett engages our pity for him, traitor or no. Addressing the audience, Browne explains that he died before he could be accepted again. Had he lived, he would have done “Desert Island Discs”.
The two plays together offer a hugely absorbing and particularly witty evening. Yes, their subject matter feels dated; no longer topical, but not yet historical. If you not aware of events, reading the excellent programme notes is advisable. But this is Bennett at his best; at his most comic and most cutting; and well worth seeing.