Cellmates – Hampstead Theatre

We are endlessly fascinated by spies and the nature of betrayal. For those who knew the men spying for Russia in the mid-Twentieth Century, more than country or ideology, it is the personal treacheries that still rankle. Even now, many decades after they were unveiled and defected, it is impossible to separate the professional and personal, as secrets shared meant friendships smashed and trust destroyed in the very concept of the English gentlemen.

Even more interesting are the stories of disappointment and disillusion that followed defection, that, for some born and bred Englishmen, the youthful communist verve that sustained them through years of treachery, passing information through shadowy contacts, was unprepared for the truth of Russian living. The dream and the reality couldn’t have been further apart; public gratitude from the Soviet government was accompanied by endless private suspicions about double agents, restrictions on their freedom and the fear that one day they too may ‘disappear’ as many had before. Knowing there was no way back to the life they known in the UK drove them to alcohol and despair.

Operating at much the same time as the Cambridge Five, and later known to Philby and Maclean in Moscow, George Blake’s story remains equally audacious and shocking. Born in the Netherlands to Dutch and Egyptian parents, Blake was a British citizen serving in the Dutch army and later the Dutch resistance in the Second World War, before joining the Royal Navy and the Secret Intelligence Service in the final years of the conflict. But it wasn’t until Blake became a prisoner of war in Korea in the early 1950s that he converted to Communism and volunteered to work as a double agent for the KGB, a role he would perform until his discovery in 1961.

Simon Gray’s play Cellmates picks up Blake’s story in 1966 as a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs where he is serving a 42-year sentence and meets petty thief Sean Bourke for the first time when offering to write for the literary magazine that Bourke edits. Within minutes a plan is hatched for escape, a journey that will take the two new friends from their cells, to a crumbling safehouse and sends Blake to Moscow. But life isn’t as easy as the two men supposed, and when Bourke arrives in Russia for a visit the two men find themselves trapped in each other’s company for longer than they ever imagined, while personal betrayals test their friendship.

Cellmates is by no means a perfect play, and its first outing in 1995 was overshadowed by Stephen Fry’s sudden departure after poor reviews. This new production at the Hampstead Theatre is its first revival since then, and its dramatic weaknesses are just about papered over by some fine performances from leads Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne. But there are several aspects of the play that leave the audience unsatisfied and underwhelmed, not least that much of the excitement happens off-stage, so we are only shown the bits before and after the escape. Even in the Moscow sections, characters frequently talk of interesting events that have happened to them beyond the walls of the set, without fully bringing the excitement and danger of Blake and Bourke’s experiences to life.

Instead, the play focuses – largely successfully and certainly in this production –  on the unlikely and deep-rooted friendship that grows between the two men, taking its dramatic queues from the shifting patterns of engagement between them and exploring the nature of guilt, gratitude, fear and companionship that mark their years in close confinement. Gray never quite finds the right tone however, so the action seems to uneasily rattle between light farce, tense drama and social commentary without deciding which to be, and without really telling the audience much about the motivation of the two men at its centre. Why Blake betrayed his adoptive country, what he really thought of Russia and why Bourke risked his freedom for a stranger is never fully explained, leaving the actors to fill in the gaps for the viewer.

Geoffrey Streatfeild specialises in emotional exuberance, and while a lesser performer could seem stagey or unconvincing, one of Streatfeild’s key skills as an actor is the ability to lend credibility to histrionics that reveal the deeper feelings of the character, often fighting against a staid or repressed exterior. He effortlessly alters the tone of a scene in an instant, moving seamlessly from comedy to anguish with a gravity that makes the transition convincing and often quite touching.

His previous work as the rakish lead in The Beaux’ Stratagem who finds himself hopelessly ensnared in his own plots, and as the tragic Ivanov, both at the National Theatre, have demonstrated this ability to balance comedy and pathos, and here in Cellmates, Streatfeild brings much more to the role of George than the text allows, or arguably deserves. It’s a role that, in the first Act at least, varies considerably scene by scene, and George’s initial appearance is in prison where Streatfeild plays him as timid and cautious, the very image of the buttoned-up and rather diffident Englishman – imagine a cross between George Smiley and John Major, an unlikely fit for a master deceiver but a quietly internal person.

In the slightly odd second scene, Streatfeild’s Blake is in the safe house suffering from a head wound received while trying to escape a few hours earlier. He veers between lucidity and confusion, often appearing needy, unable to separate reality from TV programmes and having to be looked after. While Streatfeild manages of all this well, the peculiarities of Gray’s text in which supportive friends, a disgruntled doctor and unexpected estate agents pop by, barely accord with the idea of Blake as a professional spy. And, it’s not really until the action moves to Russia just before the interval that the play really begins to come together.

As the plot settles, Streatfeild is able to bring all his experience into play, constantly treading the line between optimism, public compliance with his new life in the Motherland, and a deeper sense of regret, homesickness and even the slightest hints of shame at having lost the life he had while involving his cellmate and rescuer Sean in the process. Some of the production’s very best moments are in the way Streatfeild contrasts what Blake says and how he feels, allowing momentary outbursts of feeling to break through the façade of acceptance, and the genuine sorrow that seems to sit just below the surface of every action. If you need a reason to stay beyond the interval, then watching Blake start to acknowledge his fear of loneliness, and the almost desperate need for friendship that lead to a surprising betrayal are worth retaking your seat for.

Emmet Byrne as Sean Bourke has a less complex path through the story, an almost naïve character who takes most things at face value. Bourke is a more obviously comic character than Blake, and Byrne brings a sense of how quickly he becomes out of his depth in the scale of wider events, and, having been the driving force in early scenes, the power shifts remarkably quickly which Byrne traces well.

The text is rather light on explanation, and, as it’s still early in the run, Byrne has time to help “colour-in” some of the missing character motivation to help the audience understand why, with no prior connection between them, he wants to help Blake and agrees to stay in Moscow; the reliance on the friendship seems a little too one sided at present, and Byrne could further explore how much Sean Bourke needed George Blake to add more depth to his portrayal.

The Second Act is largely more successful than the first, and while Michael Pavelka’s sets are impressively detailed taking the action from Wormwood Scrubs to Soviet Russia, they are cumbersome to change, leaving director Edward Hall with an uneven approach, bringing the curtain down on overlong scene breaks in Act One that interrupt the flow, while leaving the curtain up in Act Two while the audience watches stagehands rapidly rearranging the furniture – neither makes for an elegant solution.

This new production of Cellmates fares better than its first outing, but doesn’t entirely resolve some of the play’s core problems, and doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a comedy or a serious drama – the inclusion of Philip Bird and Danny Lee Wynter as menacing comedy Russians, although well performed, are the embodiment of the play’s inability to be quite one thing or another. It starts as a heist with a touch of farce in the safe house, before becoming a more serious attempt to examine the consequences of betrayal. The tone varies considerably across the night – largely the fault of the text – but with Press Night looming there are issues to resolve in production as well. Cellmates is just about saved by Streatfeild’s meaningful portrayal of Blake as a man to whom treachery was a habit, and whose real punishment was to live in the country he spied for.

Cellmates is at the Hampstead Theatre until 20 January. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

5 responses to “Cellmates – Hampstead Theatre

  • JohnA

    Hi Maryam

    I agree with you – and several other reviewers – that Geoffrey Streatfield made the difference between an absorbing couple of hours in the theatre and a dud. To be fair to Simon Gray this could be because Streatfield unerringly found the George Blake that Gray wrote by concentrating to two crucial facets: Blake’s remarkable combination of self-delusion and self-justification; and the fact that the sheer savagery of his prison sentence bought him a degree of empathy that he wouldn’t otherwise have merited.

    One thing you don’t mention is the bit towards the end of Scene Two where Bourke speaks into his machine ‘The Springing of George Blake. Chapter One….’ The Springing of George Blake is, of course, a real book (which I actually read in the 1980s) that Bourke was to publish a quarter of a century before Gray’s play and which might hold the key to the playwright’s dilemma. The book is as detailed as the play is sketchy. Without even considering minor matters such as whether the book’s narrative is even reliable, to be as comprehensive as Bourke’s account and retain dramatic tension the play would have to be a masterpiece; and, as you rightly observe, it isn’t that. As presented here it is, though, absorbing if you can ignore the fact that the comic approach is somewhat at odds with the rather sad human stories. The risky tactic of advancing the story without really showing how anything happens works because Gray invests everything in the fictionalised relationship between the two main characters; and Streatfield and Byrne make us care about them. I didn’t see the original production, though I’ve been told Rik Mayall’s Bourke was very fine. It’s not too cruel, I think, to suspect that Stephen Fry wouldn’t have been a patch on Streatfield even if he’d grown into his role. The script wisely leaves the audience to mull over unresolved issues – some of them rather more profound than the mere mechanics of the escape. There’s the sexual undertones for one: is Bourke besotted with Blake? Or with Zinaida? Or a bit of both? Does Blake believe the stuff he so pompously pronounces? Indeed, does he know what he believes (Streatfield has a talent for signalling doubt with his facial expressions)? I don’t want to defend the piece too vigorously as I agree with you – and what appears to be the consensus view – that even this production can’t entirely mask the imbalances in the script. But it does seem to go a long way towards giving the play the airing that Gray has always insisted it deserves. The performances are all good, some very good. Of the minor characters I thought Cara Horgan was particularly good as Zinaida. The knockabout comic approach is a useful safeguard against audiences imagining Cell Mates is a documentary. At which point I might bring up the fact that another thing you don’t mention is the text on the programme cover “Based on a True Story” – which I normally experience as code for “This made-for-TV movie is pretty limp”. While I wouldn’t want to put Cell Mates in the same category as formulaic TV films, it’s clear to anyone with any knowledge of the case that Gray is taking serious liberties with the facts. It is, I think, the price he has to pay for concentrating on specific relationships. On balance I’m glad I saw it.

    • Maryam Philpott

      Hi John

      Thanks for your comment and the additional context, I think that will really help anyone planning to see the play over Christmas.

      I’m very glad I saw Cellmates too and that it has had the chance to shake of it’s earlier associations. I suppose my overriding feeling was that this could have been a much stronger play about the central relationship between Bourke and Blake but Gray didn’t quite go far enough in his analysis of them.

      The lack of action is only a problem because that central interaction isn’t fleshed out as fully as it needs to be which makes the balance between comedy and drama too uneven.

      And I was pleased to see Streatfeild’s performance given due recognition in the reviews, he is a very fine actor who, as you suggest, is always able to contrast the outward appearance of a character with the turmoil beneath.

      Perhaps this version may lead to the play being more frequently performed now, so we might have more to compare it with in the future.

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