Our fascination with the Cambridge spy ring is undimmed, and Julian Mitchell’s renowned 1981 play – which originally starred Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh, with Colin Firth playing the Branagh role in a subsequent movie – is a deserving transfer from last autumn’s Chichester season to the West End.
Everett’s tailor-made role as the gay, disruptive public schoolboy Guy Bennett (ie, Guy Burgess) is taken by another striking newcomer, Rob Callender, puppyish and baby-faced, a killer cherub, while Branagh/Firth’s Judd is given the right sort of determined, Marxist intensity by Will Attenborough.
As a schooldays play about hierarchies, sex, suicide and loneliness, the piece hasn’t dated, while Mitchell’s elegant, incisive writing still pleases and provokes in equal measure. It’s a poignant bonus to learn that Judd was based on the poet John Cornford, who died young while fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
Jeremy Herrin’s production makes a good case for the canonical status of the play alongside other “male bastion” studies such as Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On and The History Boys, and Laura Wade’s Posh. And an ironic blast of “I Vow to Thee, My Country” reminds us that the British educational system has always guaranteed an ambiguous sense of patriotism.
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