Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre

8/10

When I told a friend of mine that Cell Mates was about to open at Hampstead, they replied they were surprised anyone was willing to take it on. Well, I am delighted that Edward Hall has, because it is a play worth seeing.

When Cell Mates premiered and had its brief but controversial run, involving Stephen Fry running away to France I was only 15 years old.  I doubt many people my age or younger will remember that happening or feel any link between that 22 year-old incident and the quality of the play.

Built around the story of British Soviet spy George Blake and the friend who helped him escape from prison, Cell Mates is part crime caper, part spy thriller and entirely an exploration of the nature of friendship and the exploitation and betrayal that characterise it.

As the action moves from Wormwood Scrubs to London to Moscow, Blake and Bourke’s friendship develops. It is unhealthy from the start: characterised by need, exploitation and dependency. At various points, each man holds the life of the other in his hands, or is helpless and at the mercy of the other. Bourke likens it to a marriage when one spouse is sick. Throughout the first act, the audience must constantly reassess who is exploiting who. Who is the betrayer?

At the heart of the play lies a sense of claustrophobia so strong that for much of the second act I kept thinking of John Fowles’s The Collector. Blake and Bourke are never cell mates in prison. But as soon as Blake escapes, they are trapped together, at first in a London bedsit, then later under the surveillance of the KGB. At the beginning of the play, Bourke characterises it as being closer than two men ever get. It sounds almost romantic, and it’s a shame that Gray’s text fails to really explore the homoerotic possibilities of this. By the end, Blake has evoked the relationship between colonial slaves and their masters, the sense of ownership passing between each, the imbalance of power and the explicit sense of menace on one side and helplessness on the other.

By the end, I was left wondering what actually happened to Bourke. Was his trip to the Union Hotel a final double cross? A way to get him to come along quietly? Blake has wound both Bourke and the audience into so many knots, that unless you’re familiar with the history, you simply don’t know. I haven’t looked at the history of it. It’s a perfect moment of theatre and I don’t want to know.

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne embody their roles flawlessly and I couldn’t help thinking back to the original West End casting and failing to get my head around it. Had Fry been in good health, would it ever have worked? I find it hard to imagine so. My only gripe is that I do wish Blake had been played by someone who actually looks mixed race. If you look at photos of the real George Blake, he is dark in his colouring, and whitewashing him in the form of a strawberry blond actor didn’t sit entirely well with me. And yet, Streatfield is outstanding.

It’s no secret to anyone that I am not a fan of Simon Gray and often dismiss him as a theatrical also-ran: his plays are linguistically clever, but really rather forgettable. All the elements of his other work are here: poking fun at Britishness and social structures, moments of tongue-tied cringe comedy, clever word play. And yet, Cell Mates is so much more than that. Because it looks outside the confines of Britishness, it has a lasting appeal. Gray wrote it before the internet had taken centre stage in our daily lives, but Blake’s evocation of the country of the future as he repeatedly manipulates reality resonates with those wary of Brexit committees, political campaigners and the Murdoch press.  As a result, despite receiving notoriety rather than recognition in his lifetime, Cell Mates may just be the best thing Gray ever did.

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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, Wyndham’s Theatre

5/10

The tragedy at the center of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is this: it needn’t have been an awful play.

The basic premise of unlikely romance is unoriginal but sound. The performances are good. Ann-Marie Duff gives Georgie an energy and spirit that prevent her from being  entirely annoying despite the relentlessness of her character. Kenneth Cranham’s reticent Alex manages to remain down to earth while being intriguing and enigmatic. The characters as written are knowable and believable. Interesting, even.  And yet, they are stuck in an absolute stinker of a plot, so bad that by the final scene I had started to wonder if I were watching an unsuccessful film script that Jennifer Aniston and Michael Caine had rejected.

It’s not very often that I sit through a play cringing with embarrassment: but that is how I felt watching this one. Towards the end of the second scene – and thereafter throughout the rest of the play – I started to experience that creeping sense of horror every teenager feels when an explicit sex scene happens on television while their parents are in the room. I cannot account for this feeling, it was just there.

Georgie (42) and Alex (75) meet on a train platform. Georgie has just crept up behind Alex on the bench where he is sitting and kissed him on the back of the neck. Her justification for this is that he looked, from behind, like her husband, who is dead. Georgie feels a connection to Alex and keeps talking. Alex is indifferent and responds to her conversational overtures out of politeness. The conversation progresses naturally and is played deftly by the actors. At this point, the audience is interested. In the second scene, Georgie has tracked Alex down to his place of work. He is no more interested in her advances, but warms to her over the course of a conversation in which many of her assumptions about him and assertions about herself are shown to be false. By the end of the scene, they seem set to go on a date. The audience is intrigued.

From this point onwards, the play tumbles downhill like a fixie bike on Highgate Hill. Over the first two scenes we have established that although mismatched in some aspects, Georgie and Alex are a couple perfectly capable of getting together. The third scene throws all that good work away. Georgie’s outrageous flirting (“Your eyes! Your eyes!”) would make Forrest Gump question her sincerity. Alex’s suggestive mirroring seems incongruous with his reticent, buttoned-up character. In the next scene, having had sex (indicated by the set walls whipping back and forth in a way I assume was meant to simulate penetration) Alex, who has met Georgie three times at this point, has moved on to declarations of love. This seemed so ludicrous to me that it muted the horror of the hackneyed Hollywood plot device that was about to follow: Georgie admits she is planning to scam him – in fact, it was her object in meeting him.

From this point onwards, it was a question of trying not to look at my watch as I waited for them to wind things up, while working out how something that started off reasonably well went so horribly wrong.  The central flaw seems to be that while the characters are developed to full depth, the plot isn’t. Played out over a few months or several weeks, Georgie and Alex’s story would remain unoriginal but would at least seem believable. Having met him more than thrice, Georgie might have had the opportunity to genuinely feel remorse for wanting to fleece him. Having got close to Georgie over months or weeks, it would seem more believable that Alex is willing to overlook her motives and focus on what attracts him. By cramming the plot into a matter of days, Simon Stephens makes the play a nonsense. It’s a shame because the actors – and indeed the characters – deserve better.