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Theatre Review Unfinished business

Simon Gray's play on Soviet double agent George Blake is disappointingly incomplete, says LYNNE WALSH

Cell Mates                            
Hampstead Theatre, London

HERE'S a jigsaw piece in the story of 95-year-old former MI6 officer George Blake, now living in a dacha close to Moscow, who recently gave interviews saying that he held fast to his communist beliefs and remained optimistic.

Double agent Blake, sentenced five years earlier  to 42 years in prison,  was helped in his “comic-book” escape from Wormwood Scrubs to the Soviet Union in 1966 by petty criminal Sean Bourke.

Blake and Bourke are the protagonists of this revival of Cell Mates, which has been a long time coming. Simon Gray’s play opened in the West End in 1995 but one of its stars, Stephen Fry, got a bad review in the FT and fled after only three performances and disappeared for a while, leaving co-star and Rik Mayall to soldier on. The production closed after five weeks.

But, despite the expectation, disappointment reigns —  there’s something substantial missing here.

The performances are accomplished. Emmet Byrne is a cocky and ambitious Bourke, while Geoffrey Streatfeild captures Blake’s charm, froideur, vulnerability and ruthlessness and all the emotional twists utterly convince.

But what we don’t get is any real sense of this odd couple’s relationship, from their enforced prison life to the puzzling “house arrest” endured by Bourke in Moscow. Their mutual dependency is surely not all it seems.

The agent’s first encounter with his new friend has an undercurrent of sexual favours, perhaps offered, perhaps expected. But this remains obscure.

Writer Simon Gray certainly explores themes of loneliness, homesickness and ambition — both men yearn to be authors, though with different motives — but the great irony is that his version of events demonstrates that no-one owns the story of their life.

Bourke’s telling of Blake’s story serves mainly to show himself as the great rescuer, the hero who achieved what the KGB did not. Blake’s writing vacillates between attempts to explain his motives and a refusal to do so.“Becoming a national disgrace is the reward of a lifetime’s endeavour,” he quips.  

Of course, a two-hour drama can only give a glimpse into complex lives and it tells the story of Bourke rather better than that of Blake. But then, that story is still being written.

Runs until January 20, box office: hampsteadtheatre.com

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