Theatre By The Lake’s Lakes Season at the York Theatre Royal is a 12-day repertory programme that transferred to York from Keswick, where it was performed this summer. Single Spies is the second of four plays, the first being Sense and Sensibility.
The Lakes Season seems to have stumbled across an accidental theme with Single Spies. It is the second play to be staged at the theatre royal this autumn that is not only written by Alan Bennet, but also about chance encounters between colourful celebrities. The first is The Habit of Art, which charts a fictional reunion between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden, both famous for having taboo homosexual relations – Britten with young boys, and Auden with men. The second is Single Spies, a double bill about a group of British double agents called the Cambridge Five, who worked for the Russian intelligence from the 1930s and into the Cold War.
Interestingly, none of the Cambridge Five were prosecuted for spying, and only some fled the UK. The first act of the double bill, titled An Englishman Abroad, follows a factual encounter between the actress Coral Browne and the double agent Guy Burgess, which occurs 20 years after Burgess fled to Russia. The second act, A Question of Attribution, follows the life of double agent Anthony Blunt, and his quiet life in London years after his spying activities.
The couple next to me put it well – the second act is long and dull. However, the first act is interesting. There is a good dose of self-humour in An Englishman Abroad, which feels almost like a short story. It ends without tying ends, and through the slightly ridiculous encounter between Brown and Burgess, it gives a subtle insight into friendship and loneliness, and shows the strange ways in which humans can bond.
Karen Ascoe runs circles around the other actors. An Englishman Abroad begins with a wonderful talking heads-style monologue by Browne about her acting career that opens up a fleshed-out and fascinating character. I was just getting settled into Ascoe’s brilliant one-woman play, when the monologue ends, and she becomes a side-character and narrator. It is strange how little Bennet gives her character after the initial setup. Still, Ascoe’s performance as the Queen in the second act injects A Question of Attribution with a pinch of pepper that counteracts the poor writing and the dullness of the general performance.
The creative team’s input also injects life into the action, particularly Louie Whitemore and Top Show’s surreal set design. While the rotating stage and the curtain does creak a little, the picture frames and the half-box room had a crooked cartoonishness that offsets the realist acting and added witty self-awareness. I loved the stark lighting changes, and the absurdist fades into very tight spotlights, particularly in An Englishman Abroad.
Single Spies is worth a watch, but anyone bracing themselves should research the Cambridge Five beforehand, and be wary after the interval.
Single Spies is playing at the York Theatre Royal until 14 November. For more information and tickets, click here.