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Review: Cell Mates, at Hampstead Theatre

Revival of 1995 production that starred Stephen Fry tells true story of Cold War spy George Blake and his springing from prison

15 December, 2017 — By Michael Stewart

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne in Cell Mates at Hampstead Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner

ANYONE coming to Cell Mates expecting a Porridge-like sitcom of bantering jailbirds will be sorely disappointed. It is a revival of Simon Gray’s 1995 production in which lead Stephen Fry suddenly got frightened by a negative review and did a runner all the way to Belgium (why does everyone escape to Belgium, is it the chocolates?) thus scuppering the whole caboodle and blighting careers.

So, this reviewer is going to be rather nice and not upset anyone’s tender egos.

This is the true story of Cold War spy George Blake and his springing from Wormwood Scrubs mainly by petty criminal Sean Bourke and their subsequent relationship in Russia. An Odd Couple of soulmates, Gray hints more than once that there might have been a love affair, although this strand is never developed.

Danny Lee Wynter as Viktor, and Philip Bird as Stan. Photo by Marc Brenner

Life for Blake in the USSR is easier than for Bourke, who takes to drink and soon gets wrecked. The stern, Calvinist man of principle (he was part Dutch, part Egyptian Jewish) and the anarchic, booze-fuelled Irish chancer, launching into sentimental songs at the drop of a hat are something of a stereotype but make good theatre nonetheless. A scene where he teaches the Russian maid to “sing” phonetically When Irish Eyes Are Smiling in front of two po-faced KGB guards is a gem.

Geoffrey Streatfeild as Blake perfectly encapsulates his mannerisms and stiff formality and Emmet Byrne as Bourke lets rip at full tilt in all the dramatic scenes. They are greatly assisted by Philip Bird and Danny Lee Wynter as a pair of serio-comic KGB guards and Cara Horgan as the maid.

The dozens of spies who Blake shopped rarely get a mention and the play suggests that life in Russia was a worse prison in some respects than his 42-year sentence would have been.

Still, why don’t we ask George? At 95 he is living quite happily in his Soviet Utopia.

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