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Cell Mates review at Hampstead Theatre, London – ‘fitfully enjoyable’

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne in Cell Mates at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne in Cell Mates at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Over time, Simon Gray’s Cell Mates has become most famous as the play Stephen Fry disappeared from during its West End run in 1995, after three performances.

It’s based on the true story of Dutch KGB spy, George Blake, who was broken out of Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 by Irishman Sean Bourke, who he’d met in prison.

Gray focuses on Bourke’s later stay with Blake in Russia, emphasising Bourke’s new confinement under the apparently watchful eye of the Russian secret service.

Does this revival at Hampstead Theatre by artistic director Edward Hall successfully make a case for the play beyond the off-stage drama that engulfed its debut?

Not really. The script squanders its Cold War background on a fuzzy study of Blake’s pathological duplicity. Crucially, it fails to convincingly establish why Bourke would go to such lengths for the spy in the first place.

As Blake (originally Fry’s role), Geoffrey Streatfeild cuts a plaintive, mildly ridiculous figure, determinedly espousing Communism in the plush apartment he shares with an unwilling Bourke. Emmet Byrne brings a rangy nervous energy to the Irishman.

The pair’s odd-couple schtick generates some decent laughs but lacks tension until the final scenes. They’re a tragedy disguised as comedy, but Hall ultimately gives us too much sitcom. (That said, Danny Lee Wynter is a highlight as cartoon-like KGB agent Viktor.)

Michael Pavelka’s set nicely emphasises the ironic symmetry of Blake and Bourke’s circumstances, and when the play properly dips into its premise, it’s compelling. Too often, though, it’s content to skim the shallows.

Will Cell Mates revival lock away memories of Stephen Fry’s walkout for good?

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Fitfully enjoyable revival of a Simon Gray play overshadowed by its off-stage drama first time around