FringeReview UK 2017
Jonathan Church Productions with Oliver Mackwood and Oxford Playhouse brings Hugh Whitemore’s Sand in the Sandwiches to Theatre Royal Brighton directed by Gareth Armstrong and Fotini Dimou’s gently pulsating set where Howard Harrison’s lighting colours the seasons of Betjeman’s life. With Simon Salter’s music driving a slow cello or bluesy piano, it ends on a claret note. Till July 1st.
Hugh Whitemore, famous for Breaking the Code about Alan Turing, has grafted a very different one-man show on some poems, a teddy bear and Edward Fox all vying to portray the life of John Betjeman, popular poet and disdained Poet Laureate. It’s a close-fought thing.
Jonathan Church Productions with Oliver Mackwood and Oxford Playhouse brings Sand in the Sandwiches to Theatre Royal Brighton directed by Gareth Armstrong and a simple set shimmering with two transparent banners occlusive with speckled pastoral to refract greenery – like the besprinkled leaves and flowers papering the ground, ‘leafing through’ as he quotes Vita Sackville-West reminiscing just that about favourite things.
There’s a chair and table with wine and a park bench: all that’s necessary for Fox to unwind an autobiography with Betjeman summoning his own bells in a resonant voice like antique bronze. Everything Fox essays is clear, however mock-orotund he makes certain passages. He deliberately blurs entries of poems from Whitemore’s prose, as if slipping into reminiscence.
Those translucent panels themselves then glisten gold, puce or magenta light – particularly the wine-shot second half in Fotini Dimou’s gently pulsating set where Howard Harrison’s lighting colours the seasons of Betjeman’s life. With Simon Salter’s music driving a slow cello or bluesy piano, it ends on a claret note.
Summoning so much of the stuff here, it’s curious Whitemore didn’t note Betjeman’s shrewdest move on becoming Laureate: optioning the almost-forgotten pipes of daily claret as opposed to the honorarium of £72 which in the 1670s was a handsome equivalent. It was a loophole hastily closed by the Palace after.
More curiously, when Betjeman meets the love of his life at a party Whitmore and Betjeman note how uneasy Anthony Blunt looks on that night in 1951 when his friend Guy Burgess fails to show up – en route as he knew Burgess was to Moscow. It’s piquant since Betjeman himself was a wartime spy in Ireland. Deliciously an IRA man Diarmuid Brennan from The Dublin Brigade told Betjeman much later that he’d been deemed so dangerous that assassination had been moved. Brennan reading his poetry persuaded otherwise. Then there was Betjeman’s friendship with Irish President Eamon De Valera who’d just had an offer from Churchill of exchanging Northern Ireland for wartime alliance. Betjeman was in the middle of this as A. N. Wilson’s biography points out. You might even say Bletchley Park beckons.
It is then, a less edgy, more predictably elegiac Betjeman we receive, describing an arc of teen-crush tremors to those of Parkinson’s. In fact Churchill does make an entrance, describing the famously gay MP Tom Driberg’s late marriage to an ‘ordinary little woman’ in Betjeman’s phrase: ‘Buggers can’t be choosers.’ It’s another gay man, the magnificent Oxford don Maurice Bowra’s quip: ‘I’m more dined against than dining’ that also lodges insistently.
It’s not these wonderful quips that glint out of Fox’s performance that will be taken away. It’s Fox’s rapt delivery of poems from ‘Miss Joan Hunter Dunn’ (‘A Subaltern’s Love-song’) at the beginning to ‘Trebetherick’ from where the title’s taken, or ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ that plummet deeper than their rhyme schemes suggest.
But most of all it’s ‘In Willesden Churchyard’ a quite superb meditation that boasts none of the lack of rhythmic tact Betjeman chose to indulge in, for fear perhaps of uncovering the real poetic fright that drove his melancholia. It’s at such moments you recognize the poet who could have been.
Fox evokes the amused shudder that was, a faintly clipped self-deprecation describing that arc of Edwardiana familiar to all writers of the period hoiking up their childhoods. The intensely Anglican churchgoer rippled with doubt. The devoutly-married adulterer. The hopeless romantic schoolboy who never stopped standing tiptoe on a little hill in Hampstead, invoking Keats and feeling thoroughly misunderstood (letters to his ‘Moth’ from Lord Alfred Douglas confiscated, though he entertained Bosie later) till he befriended Wystan Auden, Louis MacNeice and James Mason at Oxford – as well as Blunt.
This is Fox at his most wry, knowing he’ll get a laugh relishing: ‘We were all queer at Oxford.’ Expressing his gay side seems natural enough here, though Betjeman claims it a phase. Ignominiously sent down for not enjoying his tutor C. S. Lewis enough, his equal flop as a cricketing master, early hack work and marriage to his ultimately Catholic wife, daughter of the General of the Indian army are all shadowed by his earlier rebelliousness with his father, his failure to become the fourth Betjeman furniture manufacturer – and the moment of his father’s death. The war and after and that fateful meeting closing the first half, rather describes Betjeman to around 1956, when he’s fifty.
The second diversifies, the Yorkshire property developer imagining Britain all tarmacked over, and other poems and prose attacking new farming methods (presaging GM) and Betjeman’s mission to save Victorian architecture before anyone else. His ‘We put a stop to that one’ only hints at Betjeman’s cultural reach and influence. And there’s his spectacular success on television, when his wife Penelope tells him if he doesn’t stop fooling with that London set and such useless BBC work he’ll never find form as a poet again.
Penelope’s effectively right. Though the latter years are telescoped, there’s enough in Fox’s stillness and shudders to convey all we need to know about Betjeman’s intimations of mediocrity. It’s a haunting study, given stature by Fox’s conjuration of an erotically disturbed gentility mocking itself. It reminds us, now Betjeman’s faded from aural as well as visual memory, what he was, what he might yet become. Armstrong paces it perfectly, though Fox’s timing is a masterclass of assurance.
This by its nature can’t be classic Whitemore, and it misses spectacular passes from the gods of theatre. But it allows greatness to cast a lanky shadow through it, and that’s enough.