26 September 2014

Single Spies at the Rose Theatre

An Alan Bennett play is always going to attract my interest and when it's on at my local theatre then missing it is not an option.

I like to combine my theatre trips with other treats and this time I went to the nearby Riverside Vegetaria to eat before the show. I started with a soup that was so crammed with chick peas that it seemed more like a stew and I was a little worried that I would struggle with the main course. I didn't. I went for a curry, always a lazy option to make but the choice was bewildering, which was delicious with a broad range of flavours and textures.

I am still struggling to become comfortable with the layout of the Rose Theatre and I thought that I would give the Circle a try. This decision was helped by the lack of availability of my preferred seats in the Stalls and the opportunity to sit in the front row of the Circle, one of my preferred locations in several theatres. I sat myself down in A16 which had an excellent view and was well priced at £28.

Single Spies is actually two plays, or one play with two very different acts. That they have different names, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, suggests the former. They were also written at different times (1983 and 1991). Their connection is that the first is about Guy Burgess and the second about (Sir) Anthony Blunt both of whom were members of the Cambridge Spy Ring. The other famous spy in the ring, Kim Philby, got a mention but was not seen.

In An Englishman Abroad the Englishman was Burgess and the abroad was Moscow. Burgess had a chance meeting with a touring actress, Coral Browne.

They formed an unusual relationship (he was gay) and as part of this she did some shopping for him in London for some of the creature comforts that he missed. This showed us how England reacted to his defection and in the best scene his tailor was more than happy to make a new suit and to ship it to Moscow for him, the relationship between tailor and client being sacrosanct. Not all the shops took the same attitude.

An Englishman Abroad was a short whimsical look at Englishness. As a Slovak told me in the interval, this was how the English like to look at themselves, not as they actually are.

During the interval I spoke to several people that I bumped into including the previously mentioned Slovaks who I had bumped in to previously at many BCSA events, and also at the Young Vic. I like it when that happens.

The second play, A Question of Attribution, was a similar kettle of fish in one way in that the main theme was a chance conversation between Blunt and the Queen on the subject of the attribution of paintings in her collection but the story was made more complex by contrasting this, in a succession of quick changes, with his interrogation by MI5. Two sets of conversations with two sets of difficult questions.

The mood of the conversation between Blunt and the Queen was as whimsical as that between Burgess and Browne but the other conversation, being an interrogation, added a darker tone to the play.

Both plays relied heavily on the observation skills of Bennett and as that is what Bennett does best both plays worked well. The performances were assured and believable. The set did a few clever things in changing quickly from one room to another but that was almost unnecessary as the play was all about dialogue and that just required the actors and a stage.

As a subtle and gentle play I would have preferred to see it somewhere more intimate, somewhere like the Orange Tree perhaps. That said, The Rose played its part well enough and the view and the sound from the Circle were fine.

Single Spies was as charming and as English as you would expect from Bennett, and there is nothing wrong with that.

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