Single Spies, Norwich

CHARLES ROBERTS Alan Bennett is surely one of the most appealing voices in modern theatre. Single Spies found him doing what he does best, writing in a brilliant fusion of comic flair and intellectual analysis, of subtle wit and – always – with understanding compassion.

CHARLES ROBERTS

Alan Bennett is surely one of the most appealing voices in modern theatre. Single Spies found him doing what he does best, writing in a brilliant fusion of comic flair and intellectual analysis, of subtle wit and – always – with understanding compassion.

In this duo of plays, he provided four terrific roles for two actors. Roles which call on all the good old qualities of character study and immaculate timing and which in this production (directed by David Grindley) find Robert Powell and Liza Goddard at the height of their form.

And if an audience can conceivably be described as being at the top of its form, the packed house at the Theatre Royal last night assuredly was, hanging intently on every word, swiftly picking up each nuance and laughline and responding to every proffered highlight.

Both plays are political theatre as well as high comedy. The first finds actress Coral Browne, in 1958, calling on the spy Guy Burgess in his squalid Moscow flat.

Goddard's Coral Browne is spikily incisive and gloriously vulgar; Powell's Burgess is seedy and whisky-pickled, unwashed and food-stained, so much so you're sure you can smell him. But more, he reveals Burgess's soul, a man drained, isolated and cavernously lonely, presenting a mask which hides nothing.

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And in both portrayals, there is that sword-bright timing which illuminates both the comedy and the tragedy of it all.

The second play has Powell as that other spy of the Burgess, Maclean and Filby trio, Sir Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Paintings and Goddard as Her Majesty herself.

The interaction between aloof scholar and crisp, no-nonsense monarch provides exhilarating comedy and compressed art appreciation class in close harmony; beautifully studied portrayals from both protagonists – and it says more about the agile mind, acute sensibility and steely professional edge of our Sovereign Lady than any media pundit is ever likely to illuminate.

Thoroughly satisfying theatre – and warmly recommended.

t Singles Spies runs until Saturday April 27. Box office: 01603 630000.

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