Writer: Ben Brown
Directors: Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley
In 1987, Kim Philby, member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring, was living in exile in Moscow, nearing the end of his life. His Communist dream, embodied in the Soviet Union, was crumbling and the Capitalist era of Reagan and Thatcher was on the ascendancy. Against this backdrop, Ben Brown’s play imagines the conversation in a meeting in that year between Philby and the great British novelist, Graham Greene, who had once been his junior in MI6.
The unmistakeable zither music from The Third Man opens the play and provides an immediate link between the two men. Greene scripted the film and, after Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Philby is often referred to as “the third man” to be uncovered as a Soviet agent working inside British intelligence. Philby confesses his suspicions that the Greene had based the film’s villain, Harry Lime, on him and the hero, Holly Martins, is the writer himself, then realising that lime is in fact a shade of green. In their world, nothing is what it seems and Brown exploits the many ironies in the stories playfully throughout the play.
The meeting takes place in the living room of Philby’s Moscow apartment, cosy and comfortable in Michael Pavelka’s design. The fourth Mrs Philby, Rufa (Karen Ascoe), a Russian woman, appears from time to time, but mostly the two old friends who had not met for 25 years are left to reminisce, catch up and probe. They are alone, except for a KGB “minder” probably listening in the next room. Teasingly, his name is Vladimir.
Stephen Boxer’s Philby is an urbane womaniser who shows no outward signs of remorse, even when confronted with the lives lost due to his treachery. Oliver Ford Davies’ Greene has a sardonic air, but his anti British establishment views are much milder. He matches his friend’s duplicity by spinning different sorts of fiction and killing off his creations readily. The vodka flows and, in the play’s first act, the two men tell their stories and rake over widely known facts, but the drama becomes much more intriguing in the second act, when Brown explores the personal cost of actions taken in the past.
To some extent, Brown is touching on the same themes as Alan Bennett in An Englishman Abroad, a play which finds Burgess in Moscow exile and questions the nature of loyalty, betrayal and being forever English. However, these themes are given a fresh perspective and, in a production directed by Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley, they are presented with style and wit.
Cleverly, Brown plants doubts over the veracity of the two men’s words almost as soon as they are spoken. The truth that prevails is that two hours spent in the company of two of our finest senior actors, seen sparring with each other cagily, is pure joy.
Runs until 30 October 2021