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Single Spies (Birmingham Rep)

Alan Bennett's comedy is bought to the stage in a co-production between Chichester Festival Theatre and Birmingham Rep

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Alan Bennett's two plays which make up this double bill were written five years apart and yet they sit so well together it's no surprise they are usually performed jointly as Single Spies.

An Englishman Abroad takes us into the Moscow home of Cambridge spy Guy Burgess. Seen through the eyes of visiting actress Coral Browne, it's a tiny window into the life of a man who has betrayed his country for what is clearly a shabby nondescript existence in the Soviet state.

A Question of Attribution is set in London in the late 1960s where fellow spy Anthony Blunt has agreed to a deal - betray his fellow agents and he will escape prosecution. Still working as the Queen's Surveyor of Pictures, he knows that any day his treason will be revealed.

Director, former Birmingham Rep artistic director Rachel Kavanaugh, ensures the parallels are clear. Both are isolated men who have made decisions for which they are now paying the painful consequences. We are not asked to show them sympathy and yet there is a level of empathy that they appear to have lost so much.

The sets by Peter McKintosh also reflect each other with the chaos of Burgess' flat a direct opposite to Blunt's ordered office. And while in Moscow huge portraits of Stalin look down on everyone, in London the paintings are of former monarchs.

The production is largely a three-hander with Nicholas Farrell as Burgess, David Robb as Blunt and Belinda Lang doubling up as Browne and the Queen.

Farrell is utterly convincing as the scruffy and yet unabashed Burgess. Here is a man who kicks his dirty plates under the couch and yet orders his suits from Jermyn Street. Caught between two worlds, Burgess is diminished by the huge stage set and the lack of control over his own life.

In contrast Robb's Blunt appears outwardly controlled and serene - even as he knows his curtain is about to fall. Robb has the upper crust edge of the cultured art expert who moves in high society and who can even manage to handle a debate with the Queen.

Lang is stronger as the wry Coral Browne. She weighs Bennett's witty dialogue perfectly, ensuring the audience picks up every nuance and element. When she returns as the Queen she's a bit too much of a caricature rather than a character. There's plenty of humour but less credibility in her performance.

Both plays also emphasise Bennett's wonderfully light touch with language - a phrase as simple as "It seemed the right thing to do at the time" is so laden with uncertainty, disappointment and potential regret in these contexts.

Single Spies runs at Birmingham Rep until 27 February and tours until 30 April.