Single Spies, Theatre by the Lake
The world of the spy: glamour, fast cars, vodka martinis, right? But Alan Bennett gave us the reality, a lonely room in Moscow with hardly ever the excitement of a meeting with a whispering stranger on a park bench.
Keswick is staging Bennett’s two short plays, An Englishman Abroad, and A Question of Attribution, under the double bill umbrella of Single Spies. The former is Bennett at his most deliciously humorous as we meet Guy Burgess (Theo Fraser Steele), exiled in dishonour, entertaining to lunch an actress, Coral (Karen Ascoe).
It really happened this way, Coral Browne once reported, down to the complaints about Russian false teeth and poor food (they dined on a tomato and raw garlic), while she measured him for a Savile Row suit, and endured repeated playing of his one gramophone record, ironically a song by one of her former lovers.
Burgess, more dangerous as a spy than his bumbling, camp, upper-class persona would suggest, loathed Moscow: “I can’t think what the Three Sisters were on about”. And he was lonely: “Moscow is like Cambridge in the long vac; one makes do with who’s around.” In his case, a young balalaika player called Tolya.
A Question of Attribution is more difficult to assimilate. Anthony Blunt (James Duke) was one of the same spy ring who wasn’t exposed publicly until almost two decades later, almost certainly protected because of his role as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures.
There’s considerable erudite discourse on the nature of painting, art history and art appreciation during Blunt’s (gentle) interrogation by a policeman (Theo Fraser Steele) but sandwiched between these sessions is the meat of the play, one of Blunt’s meetings with Her Majesty, played with precision, sharp humour and impeccably-reproduced body-language by Karen Ascoe. (Keswick is ever so good with Queens, as those who saw Handbagged last summer will attest.)
There’s a suspicion at times that Bennett is using the script as a lecture on art history and there’s so much to absorb that, at times, the humour is overlooked. But director Tom Littler has taken full control of this strange and fascinating episode in our recent history.
Above all, this is an opportunity for a cast to shine, and they do that with class and polish, each and every one: Ascoe and Duke and Steel, Toby Vaughan, Oliver Mott, and Thomas Richardson. With still more to be revealed on the summer programme here in by the lake, the theatre world will be flocking to Keswick.
Single Spies runs in the Main House until the end of October. For dates and bookings: https://www.theatrebythelake.com/production/17422/Single-Spies