Review: Single Spies at York Theatre Royal

Tuesday 13th November 2018 at York Theatre Royal.
York Theatre Royal is currently enjoying The Lakes Season presented by Theatre by the Lake who are delivering 4 plays in ten days to the people of York. With Sense and Sensibility in the bag, it’s on to Single Spies which takes a look at two key figures in the famous Cambridge spy ring who spied for the Soviet Union in the 30s. Two of those spies, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, interested the great Alan Bennett enough to shape a couple of shorts around them which invite comparisons of the lives of the men post-spying days; one in Moscow keeping a low profile, another held in the employ of the sitting monarch thanks to his academia in the world of art.
This double bill educates slightly more than it entertains, and I’m not entirely convinced that this is accidental…
Fan as I am of Bennett, I struggled here. This double bill of An Englishman Abroad and A Question Of Attribution was first performed at the National Theatre in 1988 and more so than any other work of Bennett’s that I’ve seen, this piece feels challenging.
Bennett loves a name drop or a quip reliant on a special kind of specificity and this defining trait often crafts a genius joke for most, leaving only an unlucky few with lesser general or cultural knowledge momentarily in the dark. Act one in particular, An Englishman Abroad, is quite difficult to navigate when it comes to the cultural references and the vast array of quips requiring knowledge of a wide range of pop culture from another era… I managed Forster. It felt very much like a generational divide at times when it came to who was laughing when, but the decidedly quiet audience gave me a little kind validation that I wasn’t completely alone in having the script whizz past my ears while bypassing my funny bone!
This first act takes us to Moscow 1958 for An Englishman Abroad in which ex spy Guy Burgess (Theo Fraser Steele) minces, pontificates and rambles at the somewhat bemused somewhat put out actress Coral Browne (Karen Ascoe) whom he has invited to visit him. Designer Louie Whitemore smoothly conjures the bachelor pad of this spoilt member of Britain’s Cambridge elite; chaotic, crowded and messy with just an inkling of being on the mucky side too. It’s a lovely contrast to see Ascoe swanning in in her fitted dress and fur coat looking the picture of class against this ramshackle abode of a man in exile. It’s not just the aesthetics that clash however as this twosome are alike only in their experiences with gay men – she via the theatre, he via his day to day.
Both Ascoe and Steele offer suitably opposing characters although it has to be said that the pair land on the side of caricatures as opposed to fleshed out people here – he’s SO very Cambridge and SO very homosexual while she’s SO very West End Theatre RP sweetheart.
There are some nice quips and both are adept at a comic side-eye and well timed reactions, but it’s not until Ascoe embraces Coral Browne’s straight talking Aussie roots that significant whole-audience laughs are achieved, which is a shame. In short, their performances here are good but somewhat laboured under the weight of stock characterisation and these performances are definitely outshone by their roles in act two where the second of the double bill takes over.
Ascoe’s Coral narrates in classic Talking Heads style, interweaving her monologues with the dialogue well enough but direction by Tom Littler too often lets the piece fall into static lulls so that by the time we’re watching an awkward few moments between the pair in which they sit in near-silence, listening to a record playing ever so quietly, it doesn’t quite feel like enough of a departure from the overall tone…
Act two picks up the pace and engagement levels with a shift to London in the 1960s for A Question of Attribution in which another ex spy, Anthony Blunt (James Duke) juggles lecturing in art history at the Courtauld Institute, managing the Queen’s private art collection and the small matter of wading through black and white pictures attempting to identify old contacts from his darker, treasonous days.
Theo Fraser Steele reappears having shaken off the heavy affectations of Burgess and is now Chubb, the one forcing Blunt to work through the images to hunt down and identify those the powers that be are struggling to place. Steele fares better as the cockney with a surprising interest in art, balancing his straight-faced, beady-eyed job of interrogating via slideshow with poking the bright mind of the one he interrogates to further his personal interests. His ignorance is charming and his eagerness to unofficially study creates a nicely layered set of exchanges between the pair.
James Duke appears in An Englishmen Abroad as a tailor with only a single quip, but here he takes the lead and makes it count, shining as the wry, dry-witted academic who is as tickled by Chubb’s oddly resilient interest in learning as he is exhausted by the constant photo checking.
It’s as the Queen that Karen Ascoe reappears, this time to run rings around Blunt and his assertions that fakes, frauds and deceivers are not all so easily packaged up together – sometimes fakeries are merely mis-attributed names and frauds may simply be admirers or students.
Dishonesty and wilful misinformation go by many names in the art world and this exchange on the ins and outs of truths, perception and untruths are of course beautifully ironic in the mouth of a Soviet spy speaking to his native monarch. Ascoe is wonderful in these scenes, with a knowing expression and a gently comic brusque manner which sends poor Blunt into multiple minor spins, played with a beautifully flailing sincerity by Duke.
We are also offered something decidedly unique: art history lectures within a play, some of which being quite lengthy and in depth. The genius is that they’re genuinely interesting while also offering some pointed parallels with the story framing the lecture. Duke’s delivery is spot on. He’d hold a lecture hall in the palm of his hand without breaking a sweat and to be honest, I’d like to hear more on the likes of Titian and the iconography of The Allegory of Age Governed by Prudence. What’s most distinctly different though is that while An Englishman Abroad assumes our knowledge of all references, A Question Of Attribution assumes the opposite, for which I will be for ever thankful, for more reasons than one…
This is an uneven evening. Act one feels lacking in direction and solid characterisation While some of the writing feels problematic. Act two does well to cover over the cracks and showcase some of Bennett’s very best features with much more conviction and clarity. If nothing else, it’s a genuinely enlightening mini lecture framed by a narrative which combines the personal and the cultural with the socio-political.

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