An Englishman, an Irishman and a Russian

Cell Mates Albery Theatre, London
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Why is an Irishman giving a hammy rendition of "Danny Boy" in chorus with a Russian female servant before two senior officers of the KGB? Cell Mates, Simon Gray's fine new play, often seems to take on the features of a joke: "Have you heard the one about the Irishman, the Russian and the half-Dutch, half-Egyptian with a British passport?" Except that with a real-life spy, George Blake, at its centre, this is a joke with a thought-provoking sting.

E M Forster famously said that if he were asked to betray either his country or his friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. The play explores a situation wherein all the terms of such a choice are intriguingly skewed. For a start, Blake, the Secret Intelligence Service man who doubled as a KGB spy, was betraying his adopted country: clubland Englishness with him was already a form of false identity. And, as Gray shapes the story, Blake shows himself a spy's spy in being quite prepared to betray his friend as well.

He was sprung from Wormwood Scrubs not by the cunning of the KGB but by an Irish petty criminal, Sean Bourke, with a hacksaw and a rope-ladder. The spy soon catches sight, though, of Bourke surreptitiously tape -recording a blow-by-blow account of the escape. Blake, intent on publishing his own self-justifying memoirs and determined to suppress any version of events unflattering to his ideological comrades, persuades Bourke to visit him in Moscow, ostensibly for a short stay. There the ironic reversal is complete: Blake, the ex-lifer, becomes the psychological jailer of the man to whom he owes his freedom, deviously creating the false impression that Bourke has been put under a life sentence by a suspicious KGB. The further irony, though, is that even now, in human terms, Bourke is freer than Blake.

Full of deftly witty and revealing touches, Cell Mates chooses to wear its intelligence so lightly that it risks being underrated. In the author's intermittently sluggish production, it builds into a quietly devastating portrait of a man who is smugly (if not snugly) ensconced in the prison of his ideological convictions. Though it's hard to believe that Stephen Fry could send 42 people to their deaths (42 non-critics, at any rate), he gives an accomplished performance, turning Blake into the sort of donnishly ironic Englishman that is expert at all shades of embarrassment, but does not know the meaning of shame. Rik Mayall is even better as Bourke, who progresses - in his portrayal - from being an engaging Irish Jack the Lad, through the panic and psychological turmoil of false imprisonment, to a final, pained disillusionment with his "friend".

The real Sean Bourke died an alcoholic back in Ireland; Blake still thrives, even if his "spiritual home" has changed a bit of late. In the play, though, it's the willed human limitedness of Blake that strikes one as the tragic story.

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Paul Taylor