The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 18th February, 2016
A double -bill of Alan Bennett plays concerning two of the men exposed as spies for the Soviet Union. Based on real people and true-life events, the plays differ from the typical Bennett fare of maudlin Northerners and their bathos, and give us an evening of sparkling dialogue and barbed language, but little in the way of plot.
An Englishman Abroad
It’s Moscow, 1958, and actress Coral Browne (Belinda Lang) is in town, performing in Hamlet. A chance encounter with the English exile Guy Burgess (Nicholas Farrell) leads to her visiting him in his less than luxurious apartment, where she is importuned to measure him for a new suit. Lang is marvellous as the brassy Browne and Farrell evokes sympathy as the vain but slovenly Burgess – Am I supposed to feel sorry for him, I wonder? They’re certainly both very charming, thanks to Bennett’s dialogue. It’s a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain from which we learn the Soviet Union was dull and dreary, a kind of open prison for the traitor who misses London so much. Apart from their discourse, very little takes place. There is a brief musical interlude with Burgess on the pianola, accompanied by his young boyfriend Tolya (an appealing David Young) on the balalaika. What we take from it is the evocation of a bygone age in a foreign land as well as the enjoyment of seeing such larger-than-life characters exquisitely portrayed by impeccable actors.
A Question of Attribution
It’s London in the late 1960s. Here we meet ‘fifth man’ Anthony Blunt (David Robb), years before his exposure. Dramatic irony abounds because we know what’s coming. Blunt is questioned on a regular basis by Chubb (Nicholas Farrell) who has granted Blunt immunity but not anonymity for helping with enquiries. These scenes are interwoven with Blunt at work as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures – there is a painting, said to be by Titian, that reveals a third figure beneath the varnish. Further investigation by X-ray reveals traces of a fourth and even a fifth man… The parallel is clever, the metaphor perfect. Robb is a twinkling yet dignified Blunt. His discourses on Art History are fascinating and arch but it is Bennett’s intelligence that we are admiring. Robb is a charismatic presence – we don’t get to the root of Blunt’s sympathies with Communism (the man professes to hate the public!) but we are captivated by him. Belinda Lang does a delightful turn as the Queen and we can’t help wondering how much the real one is like this in her unguarded (pun intended) moments. David Young appears as a student of Blunt’s and I also enjoy Joseph Prowen as Colin the security guard who knows more about the paintings than the student! Bennett puts words in Colin’s mouth that makes us feel that art appreciation is within the reach of all of us – which, of course, it is.
Rachel Kavanaugh directs with a light touch, giving us an enjoyable couple of hours that tease us with history and nostalgia. Peter McKintosh’s imposing set suggests Whitehall, Moscow, the Courtauld Institute and the Palace, with only slight rearrangements of the furniture. It is a treat to see actors of such presence and skill deliver erudite and amusing writing. The plays sparkle like champagne but lack the kick of home-distilled vodka.