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Theatre review - Single Spies, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

PUBLISHED: 16:12 03 July 2018 | UPDATED: 16:12 03 July 2018

Toby Vaughan (Phillips), James Duke (Anthony Blunt) and Oliver Mott (Colin). Photo by Robert Day.

Toby Vaughan (Phillips), James Duke (Anthony Blunt) and Oliver Mott (Colin). Photo by Robert Day.


Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake have recently started a run of two short plays by Alan Bennett collectively called Single Spies - which gives you something of an idea of their subject matter.

Theo Fraser Steele (Chubb). Photo by Robert Day.Theo Fraser Steele (Chubb). Photo by Robert Day.

I recall when Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad first came out in the early 1980s. I’m pleased to say I was too young at the time to have an interest in the story or in Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt or any of the other Cambridge spies, but I must be one of the last of the generation who remember the names at least, in a cold War period when John Le Carré’s spy stories were all the rage.

As with all Bennett’s work, he focuses on the character rather than the actions of a person and we’re left at the end of An Englishman Abroad still none the wiser why this effete and privileged Englishman turned his back on his country which had provided him with his much-desired luxuries to live in a hovel in Soviet Russia which did not - as the story makes clear.

Instead, we learn more about the pathetic nature of the man and perhaps feel sorry for him, as does Coral Browne (played by Karen Ascoe) the actress who visits him in the play. It’s ironic that Burgess was kept from returning to the UK and died before he could have done so and probably enjoyed considerable popularity - which would have pleased him no end.

The second play, A Question of Attribution, was entirely new to me. Longer, more complex and, to an extent, less probing of the character of the protagonist, nonetheless I think this was the more fascinating of the two pieces. Anthony Blunt (played by James Duke) is presented as an enigma just as the painting he is analysing is also a puzzle for himself. The whole idea of what makes a ‘fake’ culminates in a superb scene between Blunt and The Queen (played by Karen Ascoe) which, for my money, is one of the cleverest moments Bennett has ever written.

Karen Ascoe (Coral). Photo by Robert Day.Karen Ascoe (Coral). Photo by Robert Day.

As usual with TBTL, the casting, directing, sound and stage management all work together to make a seamless whole which makes picking out any one aspect or person for praise very difficult. I am very impressed with James Duke who took me by surprise in TBTL’s Jeeves and Wooster and here proves he can handle serious and complex characters. But I also loved both of Karen Ascoe’s character roles; her facial expressions alone were priceless.

Plays about Cold War era spies who were, in retrospect, relatively ineffectual in their efforts are not for everybody. There are many references which will mean little to those considerably younger than I. Nevertheless, Alan Bennett is enjoying something of a renaissance of interest currently and there’s no doubt that his humour and ability to imbue a character with depth is excellent. Fans of his work should definitely go see this production whatever their age.

‘Single Spies’ runs until Wed 24 October. For more information on the production visit theatrebythelake.com. To book, call Box Office on 017687 74411.

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