Simon Gray was a prolific playwright who wrote a few good plays and many mediocre ones. Cell Mates was produced in 1995 directed by Gray and may have been ready for a decent run until the star, Stephen Fry, walked out after a few performances. The play had not been performed again until Hampstead Theatre picked it up last year for a production directed by Edward Hall.
It is an interesting situation based on fact. In October 1966, George Blake escaped from London’s Wormswood Scrubs Prison and flew to Moscow. He had been a double agent spying for the Soviet Union and Britain and was sentenced to 42 years in prison.
His escape was engineered by a petty criminal with some literary talent, an embittered Irishman named Sean Bourke. Bourke had help from Russian agents and he was lured to Moscow by Blake where he stayed for a number of years against his will.
Geoffrey Streatfeild, left, as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke. Photo Marc Brenner
Blake, played by Geoffrey Streatfeild, is reserved, diffident, elegantly dressed and the image of the English gentleman. He is also a traitor who does not think much of human life. He knows of the millions that have been butchered by the Communists but he is ready to rationalize everything with the hackneyed metaphor that if you want to make an omelet you have to crack some eggs. It is all in support of the creation of “the country of the future” he tells us several times and that country of course is the Soviet Union.
Sean Bourke (Emmet Byrne) is a petty criminal who drinks too much and tries desperately to get out of Moscow but his “friend” Blake who owes his escape to him tells him that the KGB wants him to stay there.
Blake and Bourke are fascinating characters and the situation is of great interest but Gray does not quite bring it off. The two Soviet KGB men are out of a B movie. Viktor (Danny Lee Wynter) and Stan (Philip Bird) are menacing by profession but making Viktor sound like a poor imitation of Peter Lorre goes over the top into banality.
The leave-stay scenario with Bourke runs out of steam and when he starts singing “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with the housekeeper Zinaida (Cara Horgan) you know that Gray is struggling for things to say.
Danny-Lee-Wynter, Philip-Bird, Geoffrey-Streatfeild, and Emmet-Byrne.
Blake wants Bourke to believe that the KGB men are cold blooded killers and they will not hesitate to snuff him if he disobeys them. What is difficult to believe is that despite that type of atmosphere both men have bulky tape recorders (it’s 1966) and they are recording their thoughts and their plans. Are they completely stupid?
The set in the first scene consists of a Spartan office in the prison that Blake occupies as the prison literary magazine and in the second scene it is an ordinary flat. From then on, the men are housed in a well-furnished apartment in Moscow with a housekeeper and plenty of champagne and vodka.
I will not divulge the ending because despite its shortcomings, the play is worth seeing. Streatfeild and Byrne do a fine job and Hall deserves to be credited with doing a good job with them. The KGB men with their bad Russian accents need some fine tuning even if they look as if they are straight from Central Casting.
Cell Mates by Simon Gray continues until January 20, 2018 at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, England. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/