Unlike other plays about the Burgess, MacLean, Philby, Blunt spy scandals of the 1950s and 1960s, this play does not look at the political idealism, pacifism and the anti-Fascist movements of the 1930s which in 1933 caused the Oxford Union to vote 273 - 153 that under no circumstances would they fight for King and country. Instead of examining Hilary's reasons for defecting to, or spying for the Soviet Union, Alan Bennett gives a picture of nostalgia for England and the impression that this man has "shot himself in the foot". There is an over riding impression of English perversion, of an ironic tendency, as Bennett puts it, "there is a sense, too, that an ironic attitude towards one's country and a scepticism about one's heritage are a part of that heritage. And so, by extension, is the decision to betray it. It is irony activated.
Hilary and his wife Bron are living in almost complete social isolation in the Russian countryside. The other players are Eric an Admiralty draughtsman who after being caught spying was allowed to leave his English prison in an exchange, and his Russian controller, the fearsomely dour and unsympathetic Olga. Eric and Hilary have little in common intellectually. On a visit from England are Hilary's sister Veronica and her husband Duff.
Ultimately the loser in The Old Country is working class Eric, the young draughtsman who wants to go home, but who is not important enough to the British to form the basis of an exchange. Hilary may agree to go back to a few years in prison in England and to an England devoid of Lyon's Tea Houses but even that fate seems less a prison that his country home in Russia.