‘Intelligent, sharp, eloquent, humane’: CELL MATES – Hampstead Theatre ★★★★★

In London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews, Sticky by Libby PurvesLeave a Comment

ESPIONAGE, ESCAPE, AND THE WORLD’S WORST FLATSHARE

This is the one that got away. Simon Gray’s 1995 play, set largely in Moscow, is about the Cold War ‘60s spy George Blake and the Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke, who sprang him from a 42-year sentence Wormwood Scrubs. It toured, but its West End run closed rapidly after Stephen Fry, playing Blake, abruptly ran away to Belgium after some lukewarm critical comments.

So the play itself – intelligent, sharp, eloquent, humane and in some ways better than Alan Bennett’s Burgess and Blunt plays – was never given its due. All honour to Ed Hall for reviving it now in his theatre, fretfully apt in the age of Putin and cyberspying and just as the Death of Stalin film is creeping us out in cinemas.

Gray is not interested in the jailbreak, giving only a brief prison scene where the prim, foreign-office-polished Blake makes an unlikely connection with the roguish, street-smart Bourke who edits the prison newsletter. A subsequent one establishes how, while they lay low after the ladder-and-van escape, young Sean became a touchingly kind carer to the concussed, panicking older man.

But most of the action takes place in the grimly grand little Moscow apartment – beautifully evoked by Michael Pavelka – where Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Blake is dictating his pompously self-justifying memoirs on tape, and Sean Bourke turns up for what he thinks is a week’s holiday: a bit of exotic experience to add to his own book. It rapidly emerges that the two KGB minders need his passport and are wholly in charge of whether he will be allowed to leave. At all: in case he is a planted British spy.

Emmet Byrne is wonderful as Bourke, bright but out of his depth, as nonplussed, homesick and intermittently panicky as anyone would be; Streatfeild superbly evokes Blake’s twisted chilly neediness (though it is only late on that we discover just how twisted). For the most part what unfolds before us, with ever more delays and co-dependent conflicts, is the world’s worst flatshare.

I notice that some commentators want a more homoerotic subtext, but I don’t see any need: friendship on close quarters, after all, can be as difficult as any love affair. Blake, telling himself not to be homesick for his wife and three children because “I am home – morally and spiritually – in the country of the future”, is classically (and literally) buttoned-up, vain of both his advancement in the Foreign Office and his support for Stalin’s murders. About which he comes back often and ever more unconvincingly to the old metaphor about not making an omelette without breaking eggs. ZInaida the housekeeper, played with poignant comedy and drop-dead timing by Cara Horgan, polishes the spy’s Order of Lenin medals daily and likes him to wear them, but gets on at a more human level with Rourke , who just hits the vodka and teaches her to sing Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes with glorious mispronunciations. When it becomes clear that he is trapped here for years (in the end it was two and a half) he tries making Blake’s domestic life hell.

It is a play less about political belief (Gray prefers to despise it) than about friendship and dependence between men, which he handles with heartbreaking finesse. It is often very funny, because he of all writers understood audiences: the two KGB men nicely combine cartoonish absurdity and real menace: a marvellous performance comes especially from Danny Lee Wynter, rapidly becoming one of my all time favourite character actors. He is KGB Viktor, manspreading to the max, arrogantly terse, shrugging about his gymnast daughter getting too fat, never cracking even the shadow of a smile. Indeed when he grinned at the curtain call it was quite a shock.

Hall’s production zips along, and thoroughly deserves a transfer with this cast. But you leave, as Blake delivers one last self-justifying line to tape, wondering, given the play’s theme of betrayal and shipwrecked co-dependence, about the emotional effect the defection of Fry must have had on the playwright, cast and producers. Financially it was a disaster; for Gray, who wrote a bitter book about the affair, it blew his last chance to establish himself in the West End. I doubt Mr Fry will book in. Everyone else, go for it!

 

 

Box office 020 7722 9301  www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 20 Jan

rating : five (i know everyone says oh no,  save the fives for Hamilton,  swoon swoon, but in this case it is a terrific play and I can’t imagine it being done better. So there)

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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