Tag Archives: David Robb

Agent and a Scholar


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.

'Single Spies' Play by Alen Bennett. Touring Production

‘To be perfectly Blunt – David Robb (Photo: Alastair Muir)



Going Bump in the Night

Derby Theatre, Monday 26th November, 2012

Writer Hugh Janes has adapted ghost stories by Charles Dickens, resulting in a play that has a good deal in common with long-running West End hit, The Woman in Black. A young man is despatched to an isolated mansion for bureaucratic reasons and is disturbed by supernatural phenomena… Unlike its predecessor, The Haunting is more straightforward in its structure and approach and, thanks to Simon Scullion’s impressive, Victorian gothic set, has a more naturalistic feel. The atmosphere is perfect with mists and cobwebs and decay. Doors open and slam of their own accord. Books fly from shelves. There are plenty of ‘jump’ moments to rouse the audience and crank up the tension.

David Robb is splendid as the urbane, sardonic Lord Gray, a sceptic who is trying to sell off his late father’s estate, including his library of valuable books. There is a fey humour to his dismissals of the paranormal and he looks suitably dashing in a range of frockcoats and dressing gowns.

I didn’t take to his young counterpart in the same way. As the credulous book dealer, James Roache is togged up like Daniel Radcliffe in the film of The Woman in Black, but his delivery of most of his dialogue is off-putting; he attacks his lines like a barrister making courtroom revelations.

Where the play is let down is in some of the dialogue. At times they speak in descriptions, giving voice to passages from the Dickens original (“the house, pinched on all sides by the moor”) or spout the most florid lines (“I consider literature the buttress of pedantry”) that it is a good job the set and props are there to interrupt them before it all becomes too wordy and dense.

Director Hugh Wooldridge handles the atmosphere splendidly. All the old tricks in the book of old tricks are here. Drawn-out silences suddenly shattered by loud noises. Mists and shadows and things moving about. Disembodied voices and ghostly apparitions… And it all works very well. The mystery of the ghost story is gradually unravelled, and is not without surprises.

On the whole, this is an exercise in demonstrating the pleasure we take in being wound up and scared. It’s an intriguing little story, well-executed and presented. Special mention must go to Jonathan Suffolk’s sound design, which plays such an important role in putting us on edge. Well worth the trip, the production gives you that unique frisson of hundreds of people all being startled at once, and then gasping and laughing at what silly creatures we all are. You don’t get the same experience at the cinema.