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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Retrospective: Soldier/Sailor

Lantern Theatre

Genre: Drama, Historical, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Lantern Theatre, Brighton


Low Down

Exquisitely-calibrated theatre. A gem. Mark Burgess will hopefully return with more of his past and possibly new plays. There’s plenty of them.

This is a first-rate ensemble too and Burgess and Parry have mastered a superlatively-layered interaction. Forget reading, this is a brace of vibrant performances. It helps Burgess is a consummate theatre-writer.

Written by Mark Burgess. Directed by Mark Burgess and Derek Parry

Technical, Lighting & Sound Operator Erin Burbridge.

Till October 28th



The final play in this Retrospective of Mark Burgess’ work only proves how much a Brighton powerhouse and showcase of new writing the Lantern Theatre under Daniel Finlay and Janette Eddisford is becoming.

The relationship with Brighton-based dramatist and curator Mark Burgess has been ongoing. Burgess curated the historic Orton Week in August, including invaluable discussions by people who knew Joe Orton.

Though originally Radio 4 plays, Burgess’ work has burst out of those confines. Though rehearsed readings, they’re the most theatrically consummate readings I’ve seen, far better than many performances.

That’s certainly true for the concluding piece concerning a little trouble Alec Guinness was having with a new part, straight after Star Wars in 1977.



1978. John Le Carré, or here given his real name David Cornwall, is doing his best to allay the qualms Sir Alec Guinness (Trevor Littledale) finds over inhabiting the author’s creation George Smiley in the upcoming BBC dramatisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Guinness can’t get any handle on Smiley and in truth he is a blank page. Le Carré’s character as we know him is refracted through Guinness; or later to a lesser degree actors like Simon Russell Beale (in the Radio 4 2008 retrospective) who invested character in him. In a word actors breathed life into an occasionally dry, certainly humourless creation. This play briefly suggests our appreciation of Le Carré might be partly a result of what those actors and films going back to 1965 managed to humanise in performance.

The Lantern’s furnished. With a sumptuous table, crisp white tablecloth and wine, the accoutrements of a Dover sole lunch at Rule’s, the famous Fish restaurant going since 1798. Co-director Burgess (along with Derek Parry, here appearing under his stage name) is casing the table to ensure there aren’t any bugs. Or bombs.

That, as Sir Maurice Oldfield (Derek Howard) would say, isn’t idle. He’d had an IRA bomb placed in a restaurant under his flat in 1975. But then he had placed his address in Who’s Who, almost provocatively.

And he’s here at the behest of Cornwall/le Carré, who’s in fact played both knights against the other. Oldfield hugely admires Guinness. But both have been cunningly lied to, to get them to the table. It hardly matters. What follows isn’t a confrontation so much as reveals in a conversation: Chekhovian, unravelling with the excellent crisp white wine (Sancerre probably) that gradually loosens the tabula rasa that’s Odfield too. He’s not giving anything away, without his knowledge. He has, Howard’s character suggests at first, little to impart. No special insights. His way of eating air sole, like Howard’s, by the way, is highly watchable.

The delicacy and humour with which Litledale’s Guinness explores his oppo, recently-retired head of MI6 Oldfield, is a masterclass in disclosure to incite the same. They’re both wartime ex-military: Oldfield’s academic career as historian at Manchester interrupted permanently by his military one thereafter, that has him stay on.

Guinness, in his small but distinguished naval carer taking boarding craft across the Atlantic, reveals things and fervid diaries now happily lost, that in fact – if we too do our research – bear far more relevance to Oldfield’s life than he disavows. Burgess’ brilliance lies in playing concealments and reveals. We too need to do just a little digging. But nearly all of this can be enjoyed at its theatrical moment.

That is, there are jokes made that an audience will get because they know the truth about Oldfield, if they look it up, which are never revealed. There’s confessions of Guinness that come out – but Guinness making revelations wants a different kind of revelation from Oldfield. Not facts, but character, reactions, ways in. He doesn’t want to know what he got up to, but how.

Oldfield wants to quiz Guinness, and make him guess first, what his favourite Guinness film is. Guess. Then, where the phrase “rum in a long glass” came from. Not Bond creator Ian Fleming but – I think it’s worth revealing this – double agent Kim Philby, writing to his friend Graham Greene long after he’d defected to the Soviet Union in 1963; but still keeping his ex-spying colleague in the dark as to where he was.

And there are jokes the audience, if alert and are let’s say of a certain age, will get straight off. Of a fourth man? “No, to be blunt” says Oldfield. There’s laughter. Only months later Sir Anthony Blunt is exposed. But it’s also a sentence Guinness will use in the BBC series, a catchphrase. Delicious.

Both performances are consummate. The mode of rehearsed reading is simple. Pages are turned like a menu, barely noticed. For much of the time they’re off the page. It’s almost undetectable.

There’s some business with a left-behind pair of specs that looks a little stagey, but it works, and what happens at the end is one of those beautifully achieved clicks Burgess masters so consummately.

This is, as several veteran actors noted, a quite brilliant set of performances. Littledale doesn’t mimic Guinness, but has his mannerisms, enough of his vocal inflection and way of speaking to make inhabiting the then 64-year-old wholly convincing.

Howard, as expansive, urbane Oldfield, is equally at home: full of bonhomie, recalling his farming upbringing, his Derbyshire hinterland (Smiley wants to retire to the Cotswolds, though this isn’t mentioned, a sleeper, as it were). He’s the opposite of what you’d expect and not in that sense a model for Smiley – as he knows. But.

Tricks of the trade are slowly vouchsafed. Hence the corner table and corner seat. This allows the two actors to swap over seats deftly halfway as Guinness is given the opportunity to see why he should (as Smiley) always take the corner-most seat in a restaurant. Thus the audience see the 30-degree slant-on table with one actor three-quarter face, the other facing away, for around one half of the performance. We can observe both faces.

How successful was it? Not only did Guinness revel in Tinker, Tailor in 1979; he reprised for Smiley’s People in 1982.This time Le Carré was involved in co-screenwriting. Perhaps he realised Smiley needed a little help from him too.

This is exquisitely-calibrated theatre. A gem. Burgess will hopefully return with more of his past and possibly new plays. There’s plenty of them.