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The Theatreguide.London Review

Cell Mates
Hampstead Theatre  Winter 2017-2018

Simon Gray's 1995 play is a very subversive work. 

That's not just because it deals with spies and spying, but because it repeatedly lures you into thinking it's a light farce, only to smack you in the face with harsh dramatic and character exposures. 

Gray may never have been a great playwright on the level of his best friend Harold Pinter, but Cell Mates shows him an expert technician and insightful observer. 

The play is based on real events, though the personalities and plot details are Gray's invention. In 1961 Soviet spy George Blake was sentenced to a long prison term. 

Five years later, with the aid of nonpolitical Irish prisoner Sean Bourke, he escaped and fled to Moscow, convincing Bourke to join him until things blew over back home. But Bourke found that in the 1960s it was easier to get into Russia than to get out again. 

Under Edward Hall's astute direction, this revival keeps luring us into the complacency of broad comedy, with almost Joe Orton-like touches like a landlord's agent wandering irrelevantly into the flat where the fugitives are hiding out or, later, a Moscow housemaid learning to sing Oh Danny Boy phonetically. 

But each time we relax Gray hits us with a demonstration of the warning he put in Blake's mouth – 'Spies betray people. That's what we do. . . even when it's not strictly necessary'. That lesson keeps striking us all the more forcefully because Gray so adroitly keeps making us forget it until the next time. 

Geoffrey Streatfeild plays Blake with a disarming vagueness that we only slowly come to suspect is an artful spy's mask, while Emmet Byrne introduces Bourke as sharp and street-smart, only letting us discover along with the character how out of his depth he is among professional liars. 

In multiple roles as gaolers, fellow travellers and KGB agents, Philip Bird, Cara Horgan and Danny Lee Wynter provide solid support. 

If you can enjoy putting yourself in the hands of a playwright who is going to lie, cheat and manipulate you, and if you don't mind being reminded in this season of good will of mankind's potential for frailty, selfishness and deception, then Cell Mates will be a very satisfying experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Cell Mates - Hampstead Theatre 2017