ALAN Bennett’s wonderfully witty and thought-provoking double bill throwing contrasting lights on two of the ‘Cambridge Spies’, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, finds a perfectly satisfactory production with The Halse Players. In the seven years of their existence this compact group have already formed a reputation for setting themselves high standards and for being prepared to take on material not commonly found in village halls, and their latest offering is no exception.
The first play, An Englishman Abroad, is based on a real incident in the life of actress Coral Browne when she encountered Burgess while performing in a touring production in Moscow. Burgess’ love-hate relationship with his English roots and his isolation and dissatisfaction with Soviet life are powerfully portrayed; Coral Browne’s position as an expat Australian alienated in London and doubly alienated in Soviet Russia makes her the perfect commentator.
Andy Hill’s Burgess provides a fine portrayal of a torn man with deep roots, which he despises, but from which he still can’t even begin to dissociate himself. His seedy charm came across splendidly, but possibly his performance could have done with a little more vocal and dynamic range. Candy Bright as Coral (amazingly, her first straight-acting role) is similarly excellent; her occasional descents into lower-class vernacular (for which the real-life Coral was celebrated) drew gasps from the audience. As with Mr Hill’s, a little more vocal light and shade might have made this performance even better, and the accent could have been a bit more Australian at the more colloquial moments; but Halse Players would seem to have turned up another trump card.
Derek Hillenbrand, Richard Elston and Alan Kershaw (everybody loves a landlord!) give perfectly satisfactory supporting cameos
The second play, A Question of Attribution, is longer and has more diverse themes. The central character is Sir (formerly, and subsequently, Mr) Anthony Blunt, unmasked in 1964 as the Cambridge Spies’ “Fourth Man” and, extraordinarily, not merely given immunity but allowed to continue as Master of the Queen’s Pictures for another fifteen years in exchange for his cooperation with the CID/MI5 investigation into the spying network.
Damien McLoughlin rates as possibly the Halse Players’ most notable discovery. Apparently without stage experience prior to his debut in last year’s “God of Carnage”, his effortless stage presence and command were immediately apparent, and they are again to the fore in his portrayal of Blunt. Unfortunately his command of his lines was less than perfect, the only blot on a fine performance.
Blunt’s main relationship as shown in this play is with the policeman (?MI5 operative) Chubb. Matt Ogden is well cast in this part and his relationship with Blunt, encompassing as it does mutual resentment, class difference, political divergence and a strong if muted degree of grudging respect, is excellently portrayed. Derek Hillenbrand turns in another very nicely judged cameo, and Tom Halstead and Andy Hill do their bit.
And then HMQ turns up unexpectedly when Blunt has to visit the palace, leading to one of the great scenes in modern drama, replete with double meanings (“Be careful how you climb the ladder, Sir Anthony – one could have a nasty fall”). Caroline Cook is nothing like Elizabeth II physically, not that this matters in the slightest; as the Queen she delivers some of the most cracking one-liners even Alan Bennett has ever devised, while putting across a fine characterisation of a public figure showing, for once, a hint of a private personality – an interesting contrast with those actresses who have, equally effectively, stressed the detachment inherent in the character. Her scene with Blunt could, though, have done with being a little less static.
The rather elaborate scene-change within the second play was very professionally done (to the audience’s vocal approval). The incidental music leading in and out of the plays was notably well chosen, but a little more of it to cover the various inter-scene segues would have been welcome.
On a small point, I have to commend the programme. To my mind, a programme really should provide something to read if it’s worth buying. Halse’s is unpretentiously presented but contains two pages of interesting background information on the real-life protagonists – a welcome change from being asked to pay £2 for a cast list.
Overall, one more big plus for a small company with the nerve, and talent, to tackle big themes in a small hall.