Two For The Price of One

Single Spies: Alan Bennett, Arts Theatre, Cambridge To have two leading Suffolk actors, Nigel Havers and Diana Quick, pairing up to appear in Alan Bennett plays can't be bad.

Ivan Howlett

Single Spies: Alan Bennett, Arts Theatre, Cambridge

To have two leading Suffolk actors, Nigel Havers and Diana Quick, pairing up to appear in Alan Bennett plays can't be bad.

They give strong twin performances in the double bill of Bennett's two one-acters concerning two members of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring. All four characters they play are real people - Guy Burgess and actress Coral Browne in one, Anthony Blunt and the Queen in the other


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The first play, An Englishman Abroad, is based on a chance meeting Coral Browne had with Burgess. She was in Moscow in 1958 playing Gertrude in Hamlet. She had heard a drunk vomiting in a neighbouring dressing room, went in, and recognised the man as the spy who had fled to Moscow to avoid arrest. She cleans him up and gets invited to his squalid flat where he lives, with his state-sanctioned gay lover, desperately homesick, in the bleak, grey, ugly dullness that was 1950s Moscow.

The play, wittily written and performed, relates how Coral Browne measured him for a suit, which his Savile Row tailor made up. There's a fascinating contrast between the effete privileged Englishman who had betrayed his country and the straight speaking Australian actress. Director Christopher Luscombe captures the comic mood with the opening music - the Eton Boat Song played on the balalaika.

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The second play, A Question of Attribution is deeper, more complex and loaded with metaphor. As Surveyor of the King's Pictures, Blunt is involved in the restoration of a painting attributed to Titian. He discovers that there has been overpainting and that three shadowy figures lie behind the surface.

So we're into the world of fakes, forgeries and perhaps cover-ups. Are there others, we wonder, behind Blunt, and was that why he was kept on for so long even when his past was blown?

There's a fascinating conversation with HMQ that suggests that she may well have sussed him out.

I prefer Diana Quick as Coral Browne. Frankly, I think the part of the Queen is less well written. I simply don't believe HMQ describes herself as 'One' all the time. Nigel Havers is elegantly right as both Burgess and Blunt.

My grumble is that the two plays don't quite fit together. The first is the stronger. The second in contrast, is slow and in my view about ten minutes too long. But then they weren't written to be combined in one show.

Ivan Howlett

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