Tag Archives: Nicholas Farrell

Agent and a Scholar

SINGLE SPIES

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)

 

 

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Muses muse

PETER AND ALICE

Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 18th May, 2013

 

The premise of John Logan’s new play is ‘what if the boy who inspired Peter Pan and the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland met as grown-ups in real life?’  Logan gives us an answer to this ‘what if’ but also much more.

Peter Llewellyn Davies (Ben Whishaw) is a delicate man, scruffy in his tweed jacket and shapeless slacks.  He encounters Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench) as they wait to take part in a talk or lecture about the books that sprang from their relationships with the authors.

As they wait, they compare experiences, what life has been like linked to their literary counterparts, and it soon becomes apparent there is a hint of Lady Bracknell to old Alice.  Peter stands his ground against her but it is clear he is uncomfortable.  Rather than extending this amusing interaction for the whole of the running time, Logan gives us something more fantastical.  The book-ridden waiting room flies away to reveal a set like a Victorian toy theatre.  Drawn figures inhabit the boxes: recognisable as Tenniel’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll characters; the backdrops bring to mind illustrations by the likes of Arthur Rackham and E. Shepherd.  The stage itself is a chess board of black and white squares.  Peter and Alice reminisce, challenging each other’s recollections, and here the play discusses the nature of memory.  “You’re remembering yourself as you are now,” Old Alice chides Peter, “only smaller.”  Memory is coloured by who we are now, what those past events have made us into.

Through their eyes, we meet the Reverend Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie.  The writers are portrayed as eccentric, enthusiastic coves, driven by loneliness.  Peter and Alice consider their relationships with the authors.  There is no case of molestation but they conclude it was some form of abuse, forcing a child to navigate a relationship for which that child isn’t ready.  A kind of emotional abuse, then.

The characters themselves appear; Peter flies in and Alice steps up from a door in the floor.  They are the fictionalised, immortal versions of the man and woman who grew up in their shadow.  They catalogue their adult counterparts’ flaws and failings with childlike directness.  Real world Peter and Alice have a love/hate relationship on the characters they inspired.

They discuss growing up and growing old.  It is absolutely fitting that two characters from everyone’s childhood expound on subjects that are universal.   And so the play moves from re-enacted biography and particular tragedy to something that has emotional resonance with everyone.

Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) and Alice in Wonderland (Ruby Bentall) portray the familiar figures with an almost inhuman quality – up against the ‘real world’ characters, they are understandably two-dimensional and flat.  Stefano Braschi is dapper and amusing as the upper class twit who struggles to propose to Judi Dench, and Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell bring more than eccentricity and creepiness to the writers Carroll and Barrie respectively in their sentimental attachments to their young muses.

Judi Dench is sublime as the acerbic Alice, putting aside her walking stick to become the very young girl again, shedding the authority and cantankerousness of age for the innocence and curiosity of youth. Her reaction to news of losing two sons in the First World War is heart-rending.

Ben Whishaw also excels as the damaged Peter, a sad and fragile figure, whose cares melt away when he relives happy moments from childhood.  But the loss of his parents and brothers has affected him irrevocably.   He’s the kind of man you want to shake one minute and sit him down and give him a hearty meal the next. Whishaw gives a poignant performance, thoroughly credible and endearing.

Childhood, says Alice, “gives us a bank of happy memories” against the sorrows that come when we are old.  If we’re lucky, old girl.

It’s a wistful rather than nostalgic production.  Melancholy runs through it but there is also plenty of humour in the dialogue and some rather lyrical and reflective passages.  It’s a strong contender for Best New Play in the theatre awards of my imagination.

Christopher Oram’s set design is evocative and entirely appropriate.  Michael Grandage directs with restraint, giving the script room to breathe.  There is, among others, a beautiful staged scene with old Alice as young Alice with Dodgson in his dark room, developing a photographic plate, immortalising her.  It encapsulates, defines and terminates their relationship – every part of the play operates on several levels: past and present seen through the prism of our own memory and affection for the literary characters.

We cannot help but be moved by the fate of the real-life Peter and Alice, and we leave the theatre with our own memories and sense of mortality pricked by this absorbing and rewarding piece of theatre.

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Watch your Ms and Qs: Alice Liddell meets Peter Pan (Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw)