In these days of fake news and cyber spying, the Cold War and the activities of the Cambridge Five seemed to have passed into the cold storage of history itself. That said last night’s performance by the Bird in the Hand Theatre Company of Alan Bennett’s original 1950s drama brought this intrigue to life in the intimacies and throw away lines of the two main protagonists, Guy Burgess and Coral Browne.
As with many of Bennett’s pieces it is the sensitive and revealing quirks of the characters which are so appealing and enthralling. Once the drama moves past the initial encounter between Browne and Burgess at the theatre, to the faintly seedy setting of Burgess’ flat, the interplay between words, worlds and characters really comes to life revealing the contradictions which illuminate Burgess’ personality. I had imagined that both Burgess and his flat would be seedier, shabbier and more discomfiting and feel that the set designer, Polly Hallady, could have finished her excellent Soviet flat with a little more detail – dirty plates and bedding – and I do not think Coral Browne would ever sit on that bed. Burgess’ suit should have been grubbier, frayed and stretched - less smart more squalid.
In this production he is played with great charm by Tom Ames. His interpretation of Burgess is of an intelligent, well read, witty and urbane man, the epitome of a “gentleman of leisure”; an Englishman abroad but in occasional moments, particularly later in the play when he is attempting to explain and justify his position, the audience catches glimpses of the frayed edges, the screwed morality and self-justification inherent in Burgess’ position. And I would have liked to have seen more made of these inherent conflicts with emphasis on the seedier, depraved and absurd hypocrisy of Burgess’ position. These elements were particularly evident in his dislike of Maclean and revelations of his sordid lifestyle in the Soviet Union. Yet when talking about growing up in England, his Cambridge education and recruitment into MI6 as an avowed and committed “Marxist” and his dear old Mum, Ames’ interpretation of the character gives glimpses of childlike idealism and innocence now lost in the depths of depravity and betrayal.
Franni Ball gives an equally strong performance as Coral Browne at once the epitome of the English arts establishment and yet also, as an Australian, an outsider herself. Ultimately, her performance builds to withering attack on the English establishment when embroiled in the absurdities of buying clothes for Burgess from his London tailor. Bennett gives Browne great, eviscerating, throw away lines which at the opening of the play needed more timing and emphasis but these were delivered with ever more confidence and humorous effect by Ball as the drama progressed, and I particularly liked the reference to Antony Blunt (unexposed when the play was originally written).
In the play Coral Browne is the yardstick by which Burgess is measured – in Franni Ball’s interpretation she is a bright, intelligent and successful woman ultimately unimpressed by the Burgess' nonsense and able to challenge his verbiage directly. In a play full of fascination and illuminating contradictions at many levels, Franni Ball was able to convey Browne’s keen wit and revealing insight into the character and motivations of the spy, Guy Burgess. As indicated at the end of the play when Brown refers to an updating encounter with Lord Harlech in the early 80s it is unlikely that Burgess would have been prosecuted if he had returned to England to see his Mum, as by then he was already a minor blot of the pages of history, an anachronism. However this diminution of the facts into the shadows of the past should not diminish the effect and fascination of this drama, which was so ably demonstrated in Olivia Bradley’s direction and the cast’s interpretation during last night’s intriguing performance.