Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre, London, review: An astute revival

The first major revival since the original 1995 production of Simon Gray's play which was deemed a flop after Stephen Fry left the show suffering with depression 

Paul Taylor
Monday 11 December 2017 19:07
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The original 1995 production of Simon Gray's play never recovered from the disappearance of one of its stars, Stephen Fry, who was in the grip of bipolar disorder and on the brink of suicide after some iffy reviews. The press decided that, in these circumstances, the play had to be deemed a flop and that nothing but closure would bring about, er, closure. Gray wrote a brilliant. bitterly funny account of this predicament whereby no matter how many improvements he made, the show continued to head towards ineluctable failure.

Edward Hall's production, the first major revival since then, proves to be a salutary vindication of Gray's wit and artistry, bent here on the subject of spies and betrayal and on the various types of loneliness to which one one can be convicted. “Spies betray people. That's what we do. It becomes a – a habit. Difficult to break – even when its not – not strictly necessary”. The play begins in Wormwood Scrubs in the 1960s where George Blake, a notorious double agent (and later speaker of those lines), is serving a forty-two year sentence. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke who, in 1966, helps him to spring the prison, with a hacksaw and a rope ladder.

The technicalities of that escape and of Blake's subsequent flight to Moscow are of little interest to Gray. What preoccupies him is the period afterwards. Blake had surreptitiously caught sight of Bourke tape-recording a chunk of what was meant to be a blow-by-blow account of the escape. Intent on eventually publishing his own self-justifying memoirs and resolved to suppress any version of events unflattering to his ideological comrades (upstaged as they were by an Irish Jack-the-Lad), Blake invites Bourke to visit him in his Moscow apartment, ostensibly for a short stay,

In this production, the resulting ironies have real bite and an expertly-timed slow-release intensity. Blake, the ex-lifer, effectively puts under psychological arrest the man to whom he owes his freedom, deviously creating the false impression that he has been put under life sentence by the KGB who suspect him of being a double agent. The ultimate irony is that even now, as the victim of subterfuge in his Moscow captivity, Bourke is, in human terms, the freer man.

In a remarkable performance, Geoffrey Streatfeild elicits sympathy for the loneliness of Blake in his ideological prison and excites repelence at his ruthlessness. EM Forster famously said that if he were asked to betray his country or his friend, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. Blake's unnaturally punctilious clubland Englishness serves as a mask for his half-Dutch, half-English origins; he blends smugness and helplessness in ways that render him inauthentic through and through and more than capable of betraying both friend and country. He believes that having devoted his life's work to sacrificing others for the sake of “the country of the future”, he's absolved from the need for remorse. But the compulsion to betray is so hard-wired, it's as though Streatfield's Blake no longer knows the degree to which he is faking feeling and his residual awareness of this makes him a tragic figure.

Emmet Byrne superbly signals the way Bourke is driven to believe in his own anti-establishment derring-do as the man who sprang Blake (his own means of escape – from ordinariness). He's an engaging man who's also genuinely fond of the spy (until the later revelations) and his ferocious affection for home shows up Blake's purely theoretical attachment to Russia. There still seems to be a mystery at the heart of this relationship. Was it a “marriage” in more ways than one? Cell Mates is not inclined to speculate about that side of things – perhaps for legal reasons.

What's remarkable is how small a gap that leaves. There's a sharpness to the writing and to the performances across the board. Philip Bird and Danny Lee Wynter are glumly hilarious as a couple of KGB heavies who fumble over the distinctions in English between “chap” and “chum” and “chump” in ways that throw droll light on the main relationship. Cara Horgan is delectable in a double as the Russian maid who duets with Bourke in his hammy renditions of “Danny Boy” for his captors and as the wife in a CND couple who have an inconvenient marital meltdown while helping Blake on his first night outside. Edward Hall is to be congratulated for rescuing this thoughtful odd-couple comedy from its unjust initial publicity. An astute revival, strongly recommended.

Until 20 January 2018 (hampsteadtheatre.com)

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