This production of Alan Bennett’s Single Spies (directed by Tom Littler) forms the second part of ‘The Lakes Season’ at York Theatre Royal, in which ten actors from the Theatre by the Lake company appear in four plays across twelve days.

The play (in reality, two plays in one) features the characters of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, two men at the centre of the so-called ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring. These were men educated at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s, who rose to positions of influence in the Foreign Office and MI6, and who passed information on to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Those expecting a jaunty spy thriller will be disappointed, however, as in typical Bennett style the action of the play takes the form of lengthy pieces of dialogue between the former spies and their (sometimes accidental) interlocutors, long after their deeds are done, and they have been left to grapple with the consequences.

The first part, ‘An Englishman Abroad’, examines Guy Burgess (Theo Fraser Steele) as he lives in poverty in his Moscow flat and reflects obliquely on his misdeeds, during a conversation with the actress Coral Browne (Karen Ascoe) who is in Russia as part of a Shakespeare touring company. The second part, ‘A Question of Attribution’, is a more extended performance which examines the life of Anthony Blunt (James Duke) via lectures on the history of art, conversations with a policeman (Theo Fraser Steele) and an accidental meeting with the Queen (Karen Ascoe).

In both cases, the duality of the men and their conflicted relationship with their country is explored. In both cases, the audience is left to suspect that their homosexuality and alienation from British society played a large role in motivating their actions. And in both cases, the audience is left to reflect on the scale of their actions and what leads men to betray their country. As both men say, ‘it seemed like the right thing to do at the time’.

As devotees of Alan Bennett will know, the play(s) are peppered with dry humour and situational comedy, and this provoked plenty of laughter from the audience. The play is clearly geared towards a certain demographic, however, and younger audience members may struggle to understand the references and subtle humour. But that is the only quibble in what was otherwise a faultless production.

The actors perform Bennett’s dialogue wonderfully, such that it is totally engrossing and naturally delivered. Karen Ascoe, in particular, does a wonderful job multi-rolling as both the bluff Australian Coral Browne who isn’t afraid to tell Burgess the truth about himself while also showing him kindness, and Her Majesty Elizabeth II, who never quite says what she means but shows equal fidelity to ‘the facts’. The set design is simple but highly effective for what it is, and the production makes excellent use of lighting to re-create different locations within a single space.

In sum, Bennett’s work remains as engrossing and intriguing as ever, and those with a love for dialogue, broad political questions, and the intricacies of character will find much to enjoy in this production.

Reviewed: Amanda Hodgson

Reviewed: 13th November 2018

North West End Rating: ★★★★