Writer: Alan Bennett
If you had to pick a house dramatist that suited the programming for Theatre Royal Bath then it would undoubtedly be Alan Bennett. He reigns supreme as the king of middle England, his plays dotted with the upper middle and literate classes. The packed theatre on press night indicates that nothing screams ‘box office’ as much as him. Beneath the gentle façade, though, his writing packs a sting in the tail; think the gropes on the back of the motorbikes by a teacher to his students in the History Boys, the gradual reveal of a poison pen writer in A Women Of No Importance. Bennett is interested in the darker side hidden beneath poised exteriors. All his best work combines both the charm and the punch, so it is telling that in Single Spies, two one-act plays collated together that explore the Cambridge Five, there is a telling lack of bite.
In An Englishman Abroad, the year is 1958 and actress Coral Browne visits Guy Burgess in his squalid flat in Moscow when the production ofHamlet she is engaged in tours through the city. While there she finds a man pining for the Britain that he has left behind, disillusioned by what he has found in his adopted city and with the ‘great leader’ Stalin whose face looms above the stage. In a Question of AttributionAnthony Blunt engages in conversations with Her Majesty about a Titian – art, what is on show and what is the truth hidden in plain sight – a discussion about art or about a man now known to be a traitor but yet to be revealed to the country at large.
Bennett isn’t really interested in espionage, though, but exile. Burgess is a ramshackle drunk, pining for his Saville Row suits and dressing gowns. Nicholas Farrell imbues him with a wistful, blotchy, crumpled, past his prime charm, he is shacked up with a young musician, a gift from the State (“I don’t know if he has been given me for reward or punishment”) he has given so much to. Blunt meanwhile is exiled in the heart of the establishment, trapped in a life and a lie that could be revealed and destroy him at any moment. David Robb is urbane and softly spoken, a man used to having his every word listened to but, in performance, it does mean a few lines are lost.
Belinda Lang pulls double duty as actress Coral Browne and the Queen. When Bennett originally wrote the play in 1988, it was the first time a living monarch had been portrayed on the stage. Now we’ve seen Helen Mirren’s almost definitive version in The Audience, Lang’s impersonation feels general rather than fully realised, the accent an approximation not fully lived in. It’s a performance, the Queen as seen in public rather than the one you would expect to see in her own home. Her work is surer with Browne, freed of the great expectation of portraying maybe the most famous women in the world, she finds more shade and depth in a role that can just feel grandé dame.
Rachel Kavanaugh’s production, a touring co-production between Birmingham Rep and Chichester Festival is fine without hitting any further peaks, has the usual customary great one liners and passes the time. However, without Bennett’s usual bite it’s all a little inconsequential, one that will be forgotten not long after leaving the theatre.
Runs until 9 April 2016 | Image:Alastair Muir