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.