A Timely Revival Of Cell Mates

Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre ★★★★☆

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 15 months ago

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A Timely Revival Of Cell Mates Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre 4
Photo: Marc Brenner

Cell Mates originally opened in 1995, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union. Russia was no longer the sworn enemy of the west, the world breathing a sigh of relief. So London getting a revival of a play focused on a KGB double agent in 2017 — a time of heightened tensions between many nations and Russia — is apt.

The play opens with George Blake (Geoffrey Streatfeild) and Sean Burke (Emmet Byrne) meeting in Wormwood Scrubs, 1961. It's based on the true story of a KGB double agent escaping prison and travelling back to Moscow, all masterminded by an Irish petty criminal. Each scene takes place a lengthy period of time after the last, leaving the viewer to intuitively figure out what's occurred in the gaps.

The Cold War dimension of the play, while important, isn't what makes it so engaging. The relationship between the two main characters forms the crux of the piece. It's reminiscent of the relationship in Breaking Bad, the older smart man who genuinely cares for — while manipulating — his street-smart younger friend. Both actors do a great job of making you believe in the characters' attachment to each other. Byrne stumbled over a few of his lines early in the performance we saw, but found his footing as it went on.

There are a couple of intriguing yet under-explored subplots — yearning for the idea of home, and controlling one's own narrative — that left us wanting a bit more. Still the strength of the odd couple relationship, moments of dark humour, and simple but effective staging — the use of space to convey a character's mindset is masterful — make Cell Mates well worth seeing.

Cell Mates, Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, NW3 3EU, £10-£37, until 20 January 2018

Last Updated 14 December 2017