Preview: Alan Bennett's Single Spies

As Single Spies opens in Leeds, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to Nicholas Farrell who is playing Guy Burgess.

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What’s better than watching an Alan Bennett play in his home city? Watching two Alan Bennett plays in his home town.

Leeds’s famous literary son returns to the city, in spirit at least, when his plays An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution come to the Grand Theatre.

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Two plays under the umbrella title of Single Spies, the plays combine to make an award-winning masterpiece from Leeds’s most famous son of a butcher.

It is little wonder the play won awards and praise, tackling as it does one of Britain’s most fascinating stories of espionage.

Taking two of the infamous Cambridge Spies, Bennett looks at the lives of Guy Burgess in An Englishman Abroad and concentrates on the life of Anthony Blunt in the second of the two plays, A Question of Attribution.

They made up two fifths of the Cambridge Spies, young men who were alumni of Cambridge University, which they all attended in the 1930s before going on, quite incredibly, to work as spies for the Soviet Union during the Second World War while working for the BBC (Burgess) and as an art historian (Blunt). You literally couldn’t make it up – and Bennett didn’t have to, using the men’s real lives as his source material for the two plays.

In the second of the double bill Bennett follows the double life of Anthony Blunt and into the walls of Buckingham Palace where he is subjected to an interrogation by her majesty herself.

The first of the two plays follows actor Coral Browne when she is invited to lunch with Guy Burgess, by then revealed and shunned as a soviet spy. Again – all based on real-life events.

Acclaimed screen and stage actor Nicholas Farrell is the man tasked with bringing Burgess to life on stage.

“I’ve only toured once before in my career which has now lasted three-and-a-half decades, so it’s not something I do on a regular basis,” says Farrell, a low grumble of a voice on the line from Newcastle, the latest stop on a national tour.

“Alan Bennett was obviously the main pull. I have always loved his writing.”

Farrell might have always loved his work, but when he first worked with Bennett he faced something of a challenge – he played the author on stage and Bennett was in the room during reheasals.

“I had the great pleasure of working with him on the original production of The Lady in the Van with Maggie Smith in the West End,” says Farrell.

The Lady in the Van played in the West End in 1999 and features the story of the lady who pulled up into Bennett’s drive and life in a battered old van and remained there for over a decade.

In the play which tells the story of the woman who lived in the van on Bennett’s drive there are two Bennetts. One is the kindly gentleman who befriends Miss Shepherd and the other is a narrator who displays less of the milk of human kindness.

“It’s fair to say it was a little intimidating to be playing him while he was sitting in the rehearsal room, but he really is the sweetest man. He was always very kind. Kevin McNally played the narrator and I played the Alan Bennett who interacted with Maggie Smith’s character.

“Playing opposite Maggie Smith every night was exciting, but the great thing was Bennett’s writing – he combines wit and warmth with vulnerability in a mixture that nobody else quite does. I think it’s that which makes his work appeal to such a wide audience.”

I point out that Bennett himself, as he has told me on several occasions when I’ve interviewed him for the Yorkshire Post, gets agitated when people think of him as warm and vulnerable. Farrell agrees entirely.

“It’s the characters he writes that are vulnerable, not Alan himself because, yes, clearly I get the impression that he does get rather heartily sick of this reputation of being a national treasure, and Mr sweetie pie and butter wouldn’t melt when clearly he’s not that at all – or part of him isn’t that.

“He has great empathy with the foibles of the weaknesses in others and that’s the combination of the wit and the humanity he always manages to find in his characters.”

The Bennett charm is entirely evident in all of his plays, but does he succeed in humanising a man who worked as a spy for the Soviet regime while maintaining the facade of being a perfect English gentleman with Burgess?

“Clearly it is a sympathetic portrayal of Burgess, but I think there is a lot in the writing that allows you to mine the comedy and so much more of the man,” says Farrell. “The man himself was a series of massive contradictions. There have been a couple of biographies about him and a couple being published this year, but nothing in them contradicts what Alan wrote in the screenplays or in the later stage plays which followed.

“One book, Stalin’s Englishman, is a terrific piece of work and has been incredibly useful. It’s full of anecdotes of people who knew him and they all have an entirely different take. He was definitely a man who divided opinion, he was very marmite – people either loved him or loathed him.

“That’s the other reason I was drawn to touring with this play, because it’s such a fascinating subject and it interests me that these young men with so many gifts, born into a world of privilege, made the decisions that they made.”

All this, plus Bennett? Makes for a fascinating notion for a play.