"You can't beat a good public school for learning to conceal your true feelings". snarls Rob Callender as the willowy, languid, teasing Guy Bennett. This is Julian Mitchell's imagined prototype of Guy Burgess and the other Cambridge spies - Philby, McLean and Blunt. All shared a restrictive 1930's public-school background with its lethal combination of covert homosexuality and vicious homophobia. They were exiles from the establishment which dragooned them, so in Mitchell's interpretation (a highly convincing one) it was wholly logical for them to end up as spies. Especially because - as his fine 1980's play perceives - Britain in that era was still traumatized by the first world war, its establishment clenching and clutching at an imperialist, cadet-corps, stiff-upper-lipped security blanket.
Bennett is gay - realizing, as the play goes on, that it is not just a game to him as it is to his fellows, but a serious lifetime direction and therefore, in that period, a terrible handicap. Rob Callender is terrific in the part: camp, elegant, mischievous, clever, finally moving to the harsh realization that this kind of love is a dangerous lifetime for him, not a schoolboy game. Offstage, a boy has killed himself after being caught in flagrante; in the senior commonroom the "men" - still, God help us, boys - politick about elite clubs and prefect status.
But all Jeremy Herrin's cast are terrific: even better than in the production's earlier outings at Bath and Chichester. Will Attenborough is a dogged, scholarly Judd, the school communist but with his own uncertainties and kindnesses (notably to Bill Milner's irresistible, comic-pathetic fag Wharton); the others are carefully and brilliantly delineated and differentiated and - impossible though it may seem to modern eyes - you really start to care about their prefectorial and cadet-corps cup ambitions and desire to overcome the ghastly sadistic Fowler (Rowan Polonski). And in the second act there is a wonderfully funny scene in which the uncle of poor patriotic Devenish (Mark Donald) comes to give a lecture as a distinguished writer, and proves to be the most preening of Bloomsbury blossoms, orating about how one must burn with a "hard gem-like flame" of personal passion and ignore social theory. Julian Wadham, the only "adult" in the cast, is superb, and subtle too. Poor Communist Judd nearly explodes. And we laugh. But there's a deadly seriousness in this play, and it is beautifully served.
"Julian Mitchell's 1981 play of public-school betrayal is at once funny, painful and very relevant."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"As a schooldays play about hierarchies, sex, suicide and loneliness, the piece hasn’t dated, while Mitchell’s elegant, incisive writing still pleases and provokes in equal measure..."
Michael Coveney for The Independent
"Today, though, the question of Burgess’s motivation is somewhat obscure. Demands for gay equality have been largely met, and so we are left only with a nostalgic fantasy of a slightly fruitier version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays."
Patrick Marmion for The Daily Mail