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Review of Alan Bennett’s Single Spies Rose Theatre Kingston

Single SpiesSingle Spies: The award-winning double bill of An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.

An Englishman Abroad is based on the true story of a chance meeting of an actress, Coral Browne, (Helen Schlesinger) with Guy Burgess, (Alexander Hanson) a member of the Cambridge spy ring who worked for the Soviet Union whilst with MI6.

A Question of Attribution is based on Anthony Blunt’s (Michael Pennington) role in the Cambridge Spy Ring and, as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, personal art advisor to Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Schlesinger). It portrays his interrogation by MI5 officers, his work researching and restoring art, and his relationship with the Queen (HMQ).

This was my first visit to this compact but wonderfully designed theatre, which gave me the feeling that whatever seat, you sit in, you would always have a good view.

The set is extremely clever by appearing both simple, yet also managed to be intricate as well.

The majority of An Englishman Abroad takes place in Guy Burgess’ small flat. His flat gives the impression of an austere post war Soviet Union. Guy and Coral share a lunch together which, after the stew is burned, comprises of tomatoes, garlic and grapefruit; a comical scene.

It is so cleverly written that it is humorous with some laugh-out-loud moments and yet you get the feeling that there is a bitterness or sadness for what Guy has become, as the only reason he befriends Coral is so that he can gain some new clothes from his tailor back in the UK.

Guy is waiting for a phone call that he has every day at 4pm. His life appears to centre around this, and his relationship with a Russian male electrician. Yet his need for a new British wardrobe shows that even in exile he remains an Englishman at heart.

Alexander Hanson (Guy) and Helen Schlesinger (Coral) work well together and they both bring out very different emotions. For instance, the thought that he was a former spy should, and initially does, fill you with anger, but as the act continues you start to question his motives and provokes other thoughts. Coral portrayed as a self-announced non-thinking actress, is played beautifully by Helen, which leaves you with the knowledge that she is far from stupid, and this feisty woman actually has a very deep opinionated mind!

A Question of Attribution is focused on the interrogation of Anthony Blunt (Michael Pennington) by MI5 and his relationship with HMQ (Helen Schlesinger).

The portrayal of Anthony Blunt as a brilliant academic and recruiter for the Cambridge spy ring is evident throughout. With some funny quotes along the lines of “one thinks that heaven may be a bit of a letdown for one” by HMQ are classic high points in the show, and is inspired casting.

I really didn’t know what to expect from this play given what could be a dour subject matter but it was a piece which had both wit and charm, whilst being thought provoking.

The evening was simply a masterclass in sophisticated accomplished acting, with strong direction borne from a superb pedigree writer.

5 Star Rating

Review By Caroline Hanks Farmer

Alex Blake plays Tailor/Chubb
Steven Blake plays Shop Assistant/Restorer
Dario Coates plays Tolya/Phillips
Thomas Coombes plays Colin
Alexander Hanson plays Burgess
Michael Pennington plays Blunt
Helen Schlesinger plays Coral Browne/HMQ

Director – Sarah Esdaile
Designer – Francis O’Connor
Lighting Designer – Paul Pyant
Sound and Projection Designer – Mic Pool
Composer – Simon Slater
Assistant Director – Janice de Bróithe
Dialect Coach – Judith Phillips
Casting Director – Cara Beckinsale

The award-winning double bill – An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.

Master craftsman Alan Bennett takes a wry, poignant look at the compromised situation of the ‘Cambridge spies’ and the shadows lying behind even the most familiar facades.

An Englishman Abroad is the touching story of actress Coral Browne’s chance encounter with disgraced spy Guy Burgess in a Moscow theatre. Invited to dine at his flat, she receives just one simple instruction – ‘bring a tape measure’.

A Question of Attribution follows Anthony Blunt, esteemed art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. As he tries to solve the riddle of an enigmatic painting, Blunt finds himself the subject of a more official investigation by MI5. Will he be exposed for what would later be revealed to the world – that the man who worked in the heart of the Royal household was also a Soviet spy?

Rose Theatre Kingston
Thu 25 September to Sat 11 October 2014

Wednesday 1st October 2014


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