ALAN Bennett would have been giggling all the way home from Bath Theatre Royal had he overheard the conversation I did at the end of the performance of A Question of Attribution.
The woman behind me declared “I thought the first one [An Englishman Abroad, the first of the Single Spies pairing] – Bennett’s one – was very good. But I didn’t like the other one. Who was it that wrote it?” Maybe she was being clever, but somehow I don’t think so.
In view of the subject matter of the second play, it could hardly have been more hilarious.
The Chichester Festival and Birmingham Repertory Theatre production of Single Spies is touring the UK, at Bath until 9th April and back in our region at Salisbury Playhouse from 18th to 23rd April.
Named punningly for the Hamlet quote “when troubles come they come not single spies… ” and for Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, two of the Cambridge Four (later Five), each man has a short play. An Englishman Abroad is the true story of actress Coral Browne, invited to visit Burgess in his Moscow flat, and A Question of Attribution follows Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures Blunt as he lectures at the Courtauld Institute and meets Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace. Their conversation says everything about the Queen’s acuity and the importance of provenance in art.
In Rachel Kavanaugh’s production Belinda Lang plays the actress and the monarch – capturing the elusive voices of both, although clearly too tall for HMQ.
Nicholas Farrell is wonderfully gone-to-seed as the spy shackled in public perception to Maclean, provided with young companionship by the politburo and lonely for England and all things English. Snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan played on a tuneless piano and a scratchy balalaika provided a moving counterpoint to the tale.
David Robb, best known as Downton Abbey’s trusty doctor, demonstrated the cold arrogance of Blunt, a man living on a knife-edge of exposure and covering his fear with a louche nonchalance, particularly in the scenes with Nicholas Farrell’s ponderous Chubb, the intelligence officer (and would-be art historian).
Both plays (both by Alan Bennett!) are full of brilliantly witty asides and penetrating insights, directed and performed with compassion and intelligence. If the art history is a bit too taxing for some, never mind.
Do catch them at Bath, or at Salisbury, if you can.