Review: Single Spies at Sheffield’s Lyceum

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Two separate but related plays by Alan Bennett are brought together in this intriguing show.

The title comes from a speech in Hamlet: ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’

The plays, originally written for television, are presented as Act 1 and Act 2.

In An Englishman Abroad, the exiled double-agent Guy Burgess, played with heart-wrenching conviction by Nicholas Farrell, meets the actress Coral Browne (a laconic Belinda Lang) in Moscow.

Burgess is unrepentant, yet full of longings for the things he has lost; he is a Soviet citizen, but also quintessentially English.

His exchanges with Browne take place beneath a huge photograph of Stalin. Much is made of the parallels between acting and politics. In A Question of Attribution, Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, is played with a strained, anguished nonchalance by David Robb.

As well as researching and restoring paintings in the royal collection, he too is a spy. Betrayal is the sub-text of his conversations about art with a government agent (Nicholas Farrell) and the Queen (Belinda Lang).

Like Burgess, Blunt is a divided, lonely, melancholy man who manages, all the same, to be light, witty and droll.

Part of the fascination of Single Spies is that, as in the plays of Shakespeare, the audience is encouraged to recognise similar traits within themselves – to acknowledge a common if flawed humanity.

The proscenium arch serves as an elaborate and colourful picture-frame for these compelling episodes from the history of the twentieth century. A stunning set helps to bring everything together.

The comedy lies in Bennett’s eye for telling details and in his subversive sense of humour.

Single Spies is at the Lyceum until Saturday, April 30