THE SADNESS OF THE SINGLE SPY…BENNETTIAN COMIC MELANCHOLY
These two short plays are vintage, premier-cru Alan Bennett: funny, melancholic, sparking with ideas about Britishness, personality, class, the fingers of the past that claw at the present, and the yearning, seductive, necessary hypocrisies of national sentiment. Sarah Esdaile’s direction gives them the intelligent respect they need, and the shimmering ambiguities: the latter beautifully supported by a Francis O’Connor’s thoughtful design: both plays, with economical moves of furniture, take place against a vast collage of photographs. Anyone meeting them for the first time will get all that they should.
The first, An Englishman Abroad, was inspired by the real experience of the actress Coral Browne, playing Gertrude with the RSC in Moscow in a period of détente in 1958. Seven years after his defection, the “Cambridge spy” Guy Burgess invaded the dressing-rooms and asked her to “bring a tape measure” so he could order a suit from his British tailor. Their conversation reveals the aching loneliness and pointlessness of the exiled traitor’s life, and the actress’ response – half fascinated, half disgusted. Browne (Helen Schlesinger, crisply irritable) claims that “actresses are excused newspapers, as delicate boys were once excused games” but once exasperated after a long afternoon reproves him in basic terms: “You pissed in our soup and we drank it”.
Alexander Hanson ,after lately playing that other ambiguous smoothie Stephen Ward, is perfect casting: his floppy quiff and Jermyn Street campness covering disillusioned depression. He is even tearful, to Browne’s cynical dismay, when the scene changes and Orthodox church chanting fills the gloomy Moscow air (moody lighting turns the photographs into sepia ghosts). The London cameos with Alex Blake as the complaisant tailor, and Steven Blake as the shop assistant who refuses to make him new pyjamas are dry, funny, slyly sad. And as far away Burgess hums “O God our help in ages past”, echoing the old school chapel and old certainties, one is reminded of Bennett’s line in one of his diaries, about such hymns at funerals: “All one loves and hates..”
The second play – A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION – is slightly longer and heavier going, but a richly rewarding meditation on art, reality, and value. It covers an imagined moment in the life of another traitor, Antony Blunt, when he was given immunity – and anonymity until his 1980’s outing – but remained in charge of the Queen’s pictures. The scene everyone remembers is the one where the Queen has an oblique conversation with him, supposedly about a possible Titian forgery; but this riveting interlude is framed in his routine questioning sessions with an investigator, trying to identify the “fifth man” and beyond, Blunt being the fourth.
The policeman Chubb (Alex Blake, a nicely chippy performance) duels with Blunt: MIchael Pennington is elegantly patrician, engaging, clever, but projecting growing unease and fear of exposure. When Chubb, who claims to be learning art history, brutally says “Giotto had no grasp of perspective, and neither did you in the ‘30s”, Pennington’s irritable frightened wince is perfect.
Schlesinger becomes the Queen, never an easy gig because it is too easy to caricature and too hard to find the monarch’s inwardness, especially in this play where she exists really as a disrupter of Blunt’s peace. But again there are a couple of lovely cameos, notably Thomas Coombes as a footman. “Raphael? No, school-of. I know, I dust it”. And again, that Bennettian melancholy: a sense of waste, of idealism turned to shiftiness, of conflicted loyalty and wondering how far a bygone principle was worth it.
Box office rosetheatrekingston.org 020 8174 0090 to 11 Oct