The 1995 West End premiere of Simon Gray’s play Cell Mates was overshadowed by the sudden disappearance of co-lead Stephen Fry after only a few performances. It turned out he’d had a sort of breakdown after some negative reviews, though on the whole the critical reception for the production had been good. Despite Fry being replaced the show never recovered and closed early. Now Hampstead Theatre has revived Cell Mates for the first time since that original production, so the question is whether it stands up as a piece of dramatic writing free from the surrounding controversy 22 years on.
Certainly the story it tells is fascinating. It centres on the relationship between the notorious British spy George Blake, who was imprisoned in 1961 after being exposed as a double agent for the Soviet Union, and the Irish petty criminal Sean Bourke who helped him escape from Wormwood Scrubs five years later. We see their initial meeting in prison, then lying low in a London bedsit and finally Bourke joining Blake in his Moscow apartment where he’d fled. But the close friendship between the two men is put under the severest pressure when Bourke is told he cannot return to Ireland.
Cell Mates is very much a character study, not a spy drama. The most exciting bits of action – Blake breaking out of prison and later fleeing across the East German border – happen between scenes. What Gray focuses on is the deteriorating relations between this odd couple, who are united by both being outsiders in Britain (Blake had a Dutch-Egyptian background) and fiercely anti-establishment. At first Blake is completely dependent on Bourke, practically and emotionally, during his escape bid, but once they are in Moscow he exerts control over his younger, naïve companion. Gray implies that there is a homoerotic attraction (at least on Blake’s side), though motivation remains elusive in this world of deception.
Ambiguity lies at the heart of the play. Is the KGB preventing Bourke from leaving because he could be a security risk, or is it the rootless Blake who though now living in his ‘spiritual home’ is afraid of being lonely? Then there is the issue of budding writer Bourke wanting to publish his account of his involvement with Blake – is that one reason why he helped him in the first place? Blake, who is also tape recording his memoirs, wants to present his version of events to justify his treachery as a self-sacrifice to the higher cause of communism – is he trying to stop Bourke from challenging this narrative? Gray explores themes of personal as well as national betrayal, and of mental as well as physical imprisonment.
Cell Mates is essentially an intimate two-hander, with its strength being the way it shows how the two protagonists are locked together, rather than widening out to more political issues during the Cold War. It is less successful in its comic passages involving supporting characters – a Communist sympathiser rowing with his doctor girlfriend attending the injured Blake in the London bedsit, whilst the unsuspecting landlord’s agent comes to inspect the property; two KGB minders speaking ‘funny’ foreign English and a deferential female housekeeper singing a boozy ‘Danny Boy’ with Bourke in the Moscow flat.
Director Edward Hall makes sure the shifting psychological dynamics keep us guessing, although there could be more tension in the uncertain outcome. Designer Michael Pavelka’s design changes from spartan prison room to dingy bedsit and imposing apartment with impressive speed.
Geoffrey Streatfeild conveys both Blake’s easy charm and his enigmatic remoteness; he can be coldly manipulative but at other times he seems genuinely needy, as someone who regards the ends as justifying the means but who ultimately deceives himself as well as others. In contrast, Emmet Byrne’s impetuous Bourke comes across as boyishly loyal and spontaneous in his affections, but recklessly getting himself into trouble.
As an interesting epilogue, Bourke died a penniless alcoholic at the age of 49 in Ireland in 1982, while Blake is still living on a state pension in Moscow at the grand old age of 95 – with Putin’s right-wing authoritarian Russia a far cry from Blake’s idealised vision of ‘the country of the future’.
Cell Mates is on until 20 January 2018 at the Hampstead Theatre. Click here for more details.