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Single Spies – Cheltenham Everyman REVIEW

With this being my first time attending a show at the Everyman, I wasn’t entirely sure what t

o expect. I was welcomed by a theatre that is gorgeously cosy and intimate yet grandly ornate and delicate. Single Spies fitted in perfectly with the decor. An understated yet highly intelligent play, which engaged with the audience. The audience were mostly older, and therefore wiser than myself but with a touch of background research I kept up with the intelligent wit and historical references.

The two plays that make up Single Spies are based around the Cambridge 5, a group of Russian spies that worked for the Queen during the late 50s. I would suggest that if you don’t quite remember who the Cambridge 5 are or what they did, then you do a little googling before going, as some of the wit and conversation relies on your knowledge. However, even if you are historically clueless, Alan Bennett’s writing allows you to feel incredibly engaged yet at ease with the characters he modestly presents you with, leaving you feeling as if you’ve just caught up with old friends. The theatre seems to melt away around you and leave you comfortably placed in the 1950s and 60s. Two hours fly by as you are snapped back into reality by the raising of the house lights.

This production consists of regular duologue between various characters, with plenty of supporting roles giving the play more dimension. The fourth wall is immediately broken by Coral Browne (Belinda Lang) by an opening monologue in the first play. She sets the tone of the evening and introduces the forthcoming consistent chuckles. Other main characters, played by Nicholas Farrell and David Robb, followed suit in breaking away multiple times from the scene to speak directly to the audience. Lighting, designed by Tim Lutkin, allowed this to happen seamlessly.


Sitting down for the first play, several large pictures of an intimidating-looking Stalin glared across the auditorium, providing setting and time as well as imposing authority and rank. I felt the first play, An Englishman Abroad, gave more context show as a whole rather than indulging other elements. Set in Moscow, following Guy Burgess and his meeting with an actress, after he had been foiled as a spy. I personally found Nicholas Farrell’s portrayal of Mr Burgess, the struggling alcoholic, a very endearing one. His helpless state evoked a lot of sympathy from me as well as his actress friend in the piece, Coral Browne. Guy’s costume of an oversized suit seemed to limit him, much like his past sins were restricting his current day to day activities.

'Single Spies' Play by Alen Bennett. Touring Production

As we returned after the interval for the second play, the pictures of Stalin had been swapped for portraits of the British Monarchy, again heavily hinting at context. A Question of Attribution, focused on Anthony Blunt’s time working for the queen. The supporting roles were particularly strong in this second piece and complimented the main relationship between the Blunt, the art advisor and Her Majesty. Belinda Lang’s Queen was full of wit and the conversations between her and her art designer, made her relatable yet realistic. Her Royal Highness had the audience in fits when asking ”If something’s not what it’s supposed to be, what do you call it?” discussing fakes with Anthony Blunt. ”An enigma,” replies the art advisor, causing an eruption of titters, chuckles and murmurs. Oh, and a loud belly laugh from the lady next to me.

Both plays were a pleasure to watch, and ticked all the right boxes for this genre. I particularly liked that if you chose to look deeper into the story, it was interpretable enough, yet not too heavy on imagery and metaphors. Or you could simply sit back, relax and accept the retellings of events as face value.

An incredibly sophisticated play in which the three main actors played a wide range of characters with such ease, that you doubted that it was the same person in each playlet. They really did highlight such a wonderful piece of writing, keeping it fresh and up to date after being performed for almost 30 years.

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