When it comes to pleasing audiences, Alan Bennett can do no wrong. And when the cast of his double bill Single Spies includes Nicholas Farrell and David Robb, success is guaranteed.
But sometimes audiences can be easily pleased and, in exploring the thinking and behaviour of certain privileged individuals at the height of the cold war, Bennett seems to have stepped beyond his comfort zone.
The first short play An Englishman Abroad, written originally for television in 1983, tells of a chance meeting between actress Coral Browne and the spy Guy Burgess in Moscow in 1958. It's followed by A Question of Attribution, a much cleverer piece from 1988 which explores the nature of duplicity through a study of Anthony Blunt, the fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring eventually outed as a spy in 1979.
Set late in the 1960s, it shows Blunt — then Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures — being questioned by MI5 and in private conversation with the Queen. The intrigue revolves around Blunt’s discovery of a third figure in a portrait attributed only partly to Titian and during their conversations the MI5 spook and the Queen are able, obliquely, to interrogate Blunt’s dual allegiance.
Packed with Alan Bennett’s wit and humour, the plays are nevertheless limited by the kind of complacency that comes when a writer knows he is preaching to the converted. As a result the characters are largely stereotypes and superficial. Even so, Robb — with his aristocratic demeanour and intimations of hidden depths — is totally convincing as Blunt.
Yet Burgess, played with a rather desperate energy by Farrell, tells us nothing except that he misses his suits from Saville Row, Cyril Connolly, NHS dentures and cricket. His early speeches, and those by Browne (Belinda Lang), sound like Bennett doing a Ronnie Corbett.
What the Soviet Union has meant to Burgess or anything remotely approaching an exploration of his convictions — surely what any good play about pre-glasnost spies should be about — is never even mentioned.
Thus questions like whether the Cambridge spies believed in any kind of ideology, or if Soviet Russia had anything to recommend it, remain not only unanswered but unasked.
In the end this evening is about rich boys’ games. And who really cares about those?