A Morning With Guy Burgess - Theatre Review

The soliloquy of a Cold War spy has plenty of potential but becomes repetitive, in A MORNING WITH GUY BURGESS at The Courtyard Theatre in Islington.

“MY fingernails are dirty. My flies are undone. It’s the perfect cover.”

In Burgess’s centenary year, former Reuters Moscow correspondent John Morrison has imagined the chaotic spy’s life from Burgess’s own perspective as an exiled, homesick drunk shortly before his death in 1963.

The play starts promisingly, with Burgess looking audience members in the eye as he begins telling his life story. How did this camp, middle-aged ex-Etonian - once lauded as the most brilliant undergraduate of his Cambridge generation - end up isolated in a Moscow flat, drinking and smoking himself into an early grave?

Gareth Pilkington plays Burgess as a charming old queen, a likable portrayal intriguingly at odds with his reputation as a monstrous traitor. It is a fascinating story, and he tells anecdote after anecdote about his life, along the lines of, “I remember the time when…” which he acts out with the supporting cast.

Unfortunately there are so many little scenes of reminiscences strung together that A Morning with Guy Burgess becomes wearyingly repetitive. The interval doesn’t arrive for a good hour and a half, and that’s really where the play should end.

Furthermore, the second half isn’t really about Burgess at all, as it tells the story of a Russian woman Julia’s fate under Stalin. Sure, the point is to see its effect on Burgess, but the play’s title invites us to spend a morning with him, so it’s annoying that Julia takes over.

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It’s a shame because there’s plenty to like about this play. It just needs about an hour of material cut out.

* Showing at The Courtyard Theatre in Bowling Green Walk, Pitfield Street, N1 until Sunday, January 30.