SINGLE SPIES
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 20 April, 2000

"Heavy manners" on the streets of Leeds last Thursday night after the Galatasaray match, but only the most decorous behaviour on the West Yorkshire Plasyhouse's main stage, in the first major revival of Alan Bennett's diptych of stage adaptations of his Cambridge-spy television plays.

I say "decorous", but of course the interior of Guy Burgess's Moscow apartment is a squalid tip in the opening An Englishman Abroad, as he empties an overflowing ashtray under the sofa by way of "tidying up" for a visit from actress Coral Browne. George Costigan does his best to be languid and florid, but his natural bluffness keeps showing through; the pronoun "one" sounds consistently awkward upon his lips. Brigit Forsyth is rather more plausible as Browne, maintaining a frozen civility amid the filth of Burgess's flat and the desperation of his need for gossip (and suits) from London, especially when he insists upon repeatedly playing his only 78rpm record, which happens to be by Browne's former beau Jack Buchanan. Forsyth allows only a finely judged modicum of Browne's native Australian to come through in her occasional forthright outbursts.

She makes a nice Queen, or "HMQ", as well in the second, longer piece, A Question Of Attribution colder and more brittle than Prunella Scales, who created the role, but no less knowing in the metaphor-laden passages of her conversation with her Surveyor of Pictures, Anthony Blunt: "I was talking about art," remarks Blunt later, "I'm not sure she was." Having cast Edward Petherbridge as Blunt, director Alan Dossor could largely relax on that front: this kind of patrician poise, underlaid with a slight but palpable current of worried distraction, is Petherbridge's forte.

In some ways, events have overtaken Bennett's 1989 script. The Thatcher regime which he discreetly deplored in the line "Governments come and go... or don't go..." is now as much a part of history as the quasi-Titian painting which Blunt examines; theories of art history itself have moved on from the notion that that discipline is merely a part of the mysterious phenomenon of "art appreciation"; the "fifth man" of the Cambridge spy ring, since more or less positively identified as John Cairncross, is alluded to merely as one of a group of silhouettes in a back-projection. Nevertheless, Bennett's double bill continues to provide a pair of thoughtful, non-judgemental sidelights one more or less biographical, one openly fictional upon two of the more reviled figures in the history of British espionage.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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