Cell Mates by Simon Gray

Cell Mates by Simon Gray at The Hampstead Theatre

20th January, 2018

“Spies betray people. That’s what we do. It becomes a…. a habit. Difficult to break …even when its not … not strictly necessary”.

This may be my shortest review, yet. Simon Gray’s  “Cell Mates” is  famously known for the original 1995 production of Simon Gray’s play which was deemed a flop after Stephen Fry, suffering from bipolar disorder, walked out a few days into its maiden run. Therefore, it seems strange that Edward Hall should choose to revive it.

The play begins in Wormwood Scrubs in the 1960s where George Blake, a notorious double agent, is serving a forty-two year sentence. Blake (Geoffrey Streatfield) did immense damage to the West’s cause, putting many agents in harm’s way and revealing the existence of the Allies’ tunnel under Soviet Berlin (Operation Gold) to the KGB.  He strikes up an unlikely friendship with Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke who, in 1966, helps him to spring the prison, with a hacksaw and a rope.

The theme of entrapment continues to the hideout and then Blake’s Moscow flat. The irony is that Bourke, having liberated Blake, makes the fatal error of visiting him in Moscow where he ends up virtually imprisoned himself. Their oddball relationship ensues under hints of homosexual attraction which is never played through. Bourke is reduced to teaching “Danny Boy” to Blake’s Russian housekeeper (Cara Horgan). Danny Lee Wynter and Philip Bird complete the cast as a cartoon image of the KGB which is both irritating and predictable.

Geoffrey Streatfeild’s calibrated performance merely adds to the melodrama rather than an attempt to explore the human condition. The writing is laboured and the device of having each record his thoughts aloud, for the purposes of exposition merely retards the action. Overall, the characters lack any dynamism or credibility.

Strange to think that Blake is still alive and well and living in Russia today ,aged 95 and doesn’t appear to have suffered many pangs of remorse nor  regret for his subterfuge.

Some plays are best left alone.