Alan Bennett's double bill of plays about Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess is given a rich revival at the Rose Theatre.
Alan Bennett’s classic 1988 double bill explodes the myth of the secret agent as a sex-mad, gun-toting, fast car-driving charmer. ‘Single Spies’ – subdivided into ‘An Englishman Abroad’ and ‘A Question of Attribution’ – tells of two of Britain’s most famous, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, neither of whom appears to be having a particularly good time.
The snappier and funnier of the two is ‘An Englishman Abroad’, a dramatised account of the actual meeting between actress Coral Browne (Helen Schlesinger) and Burgess (Alexander Hanson) in 1958. She spends an afternoon in Moscow with a destitute and exiled Burgess in his tiny, messy Soviet flat. It’s a charming if disheartening visit, during which Burgess serves raw tomatoes and garlic, asks after people Browne doesn’t know (‘Auden?’ ‘Blunt?’) and persuades her to get a suit made for him back in London.
‘An Englishman Abroad’ is a portrait of a man at a dead end, hating life in the country that he ran to and pining for the one that he betrayed. Schlesinger and Hanson are excellent sparring partners. She delivers Bennett’s marvellous dialogue with spark, while he is a pouting, louche Burgess, his veneer of disregard fringed with palpable sadness.
‘A Question of Attribution’ imagines an elderly Anthony Blunt still working as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures in the late ‘60s, after his voluntary confession in 1963 but before his identity as one of the Cambridge Five was made public. Blunt’s double life is brought into focus after an entertaining chat with the Queen (who is clearly aware of his treachery). The debate over the question of fakes and forgeries gets a little murky, and it’s the harder play to love. Michael Pennington is a convincing lead, but it’s Schlesinger who steals the show with her portrayal of a straight-talking monarch that would give Helen Mirren a run for her money.
Both plays emerge as enchanting, rich and witty in Sarah Esdaile’s excellently directed productions. And each leaves the same question, unlikely ever to be answered, hanging in the air: why did these two men, who had everything, risk it all?