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Single Spies: handled with care

Sam Bennett reviews Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, starring Nicholas Farrell, Belinda Lang and David Robb, and at Oxford Playhouse until 26th March

"Lang’s face depicts all the feelings we harbour in the company of friends – annoyance at times and warm fondness at others"

Formed of two plays, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, Alan Bennett’s Single Spies tells us about two members of spy ring ‘The Cambridge Five’.

An Englishman Abroad serves as Act One. For which Peter McKintosh’s set boast large images of Stalin and red carpet surrounding the furniture on stage – aspects that symbolise entrapment by a system. The setting is the flat of Guy Burgess (played by Nicholas Farrell), recruited as a Russian agent in 1935; it is equipped in a way most reflective of the character – scruffy, unkempt and cultured.


Belinda Lang, playing Coral Browne, gives the opening lines to the audience without any unnecessary movements or milking of the funny lines – this is very much a characteristic of the whole production. Alan Bennett’s script is funny enough and this cast do not butcher it with what isn’t needed.

The friendship between Burgess and Browne is beautifully communicated in Lang’s behaviour when she isn’t speaking. As Farrell talks Lang’s face depicts all the feelings we harbour in the company of friends – annoyance at times and warm fondness at others.

Aspects of the show are almost like stand-up routines. During A Question of Attribution (Act Two) David Robb in the role of Anthony Blunt talks us through Art History in a style which emulates that of Dave Gorman, timing his speech well with the images appearing on a screen behind him and inflicting Bennett’s humerous writing on us in a sophisticated manner.

Lang also takes on the role of HMQ for A Question of Attribution. How fitting that in the year celebrating the Queen’s 90th birthday Chichester Festival Theatre and Birmingham Repertory Theatre grant us a favourable interpretation of the monarch. Lang’s timing, pace and delivery gets across a royal who is funny, ballsy and sharp.

There is a good contrast between characters, identifiable in a scene that takes place between Phillips (played by David Young) and Colin (Joseph Prowen). Prowen adopts a laddish, cockney demeanour to clash with Young’s public school boy one. Because of how well the actors place themselves on each end of the posh spectrum, Colin becomes the clear initial underdog in a match of Art History knowledge; this makes the uncovering of him as more knowledgeable on the subject than Phillips pleasing to witness.

Although there’s the odd volume lapse here and there is no obvious faltering or dip in pace. Set changes during Act Two are achieved swiftly without fuss and characters are complete and individual. The danger of such a humerous script is that actors take it, realise the funny bits, and attempt to accentuate the funny – resulting in panto-like cringe moments. Here Bennett’s script is handled with care in a silky production of personality clashes, secrecy and sheer wit.

- Sam Bennett



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