Review: Single Spies by Alan Bennett



A play that makes us remember. Richard Lutz takes his pew for this early Alan Bennett espionage production at the Birmingham Rep.


Twenty-eight years is a long time in the spy world. It was 1988 and it was the year when Bennett’s play Single Spies was first staged. It was pre-internet, pre- 9/11…and really, for folks under thirty, pre-everything.

So will this espionage drama cum dry comedy still have resonance? Is it a corker, or a museum piece? Does it creak or fizzle?

Fortunately, it is a five star belter. Alan Bennett’s script is witty, knowing, literate and downright funny. It helps prove the point that good writing exceeds all. Shakespeare is a shining example from 400 years ago.

The production is actually two playlets, held together by a common theme. They are portrayals of some of the infamous Cambridge Five who spied for Russia in the forties and fifties and included names such as Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and the Queen’s art specialist, Anthony Blunt.


 Nicholas Farrell

Nicholas Farrell

The  opener is called An Englishman Abroad and deals with a real incident in the late fifties when actress Coral Browne was on stage in Moscow during a cultural thaw and was summoned to the seedy flat used by louche spy Guy Burgess. The reason: He missed Britain so much he wanted her to buy two suits, a hat and pyjamas from his tailors when she returned to London. Ever the Englishman, this play proclaims.

What transpires is a vivid portrait of a forgotten traitor – forgotten by Britain and seemingly even forgotten by the Kremlin as he ekes out his shabby picaresque days in the Soviet capital.

Belinda Lang, as Coral Browne, spits out her Bennett lines with wry aplomb: “The thing about Russia is not the comrades,” she tells us drily, “It just that it’s so boring.”

Nicolas Farrell as Burgess is a shabby gem, ridiculing himself and his sad life as he sits on a political shelf. But he still brims with apercus, wit and a fading  fatalism as he shows he always will be The Englishman Abroad even in the deep winter of Moscow.

The second play, A Question of Attribution, is more oblique, harder to grab onto. David Robb is Sir Anthony Blunt, the royal art specialist at Bucks House. He has been a spy for the Soviets since his 1930’s days at Cambridge. He literally runs into the Queen (a spot-on Lang again) as he prepares for an analysis of a masterpiece. Just how much does the monarch with her strangulated voice, her twin set, her seemingly narrow vision of Britain, know?

And who runs whom? Maybe the Queen has the answer as she watches Blunt climb a ladder to rearrange a Titian on a wall “Mind how you go – and watch when you come down,” she sweetly warns.

Above the bandinage and quips is the unspoken question – just who knows that someone else is controlling the British spies that vitiated the British establishment, the Foreign Office and the secret services? It is beautifully alluded to as Blunt explains the hidden messages in the Titian painting. There are missing figures in the masterpiece. Who are they? he wonders.

Both plays do not age and help us remember. Good writing always does. As a friend pointed out, Burgess and that crew had blood on their hands. They just weren’t a bunch of public school deluded boys playing lefties while gulping down gin at the club. They handed over names to the Kremlin, d waited for a revolution that would never come.

Until Saturday 27th February. Box Office: 0121 236 4455