Thursday, 1 June 2017

Review Sand In The Sandwiches

Francis Beckett admires both the subject of the one-man play and the actor playing him but feels the two are not a perfect match.

Sand in the Sandwiches
by Hugh Whitemore  


I so wanted to love Sand in the Sandwiches.

John Betjeman’s a guilty pleasure for me. A left wing chap of a certain age doesn’t like to admit that he’d rather have Betjeman than fellow poets Auden or Spender any day, but I would.

I admire Edward Fox, whose long acting career has provided us with many memorable performances, and who is now admirably sustaining a one-man performance as Betjeman in the vast Theatre Royal Haymarket at the age of 80.

The mix in this play about Betjeman’s life and work as he approached his fiftieth birthday,  was about right, with some qualifications.  It is a judicious mixture of old favourites – the show starts, as is only right and proper, with one of his best known poems Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn – and some less well-known works, together with lengthy extracts from Betjeman’s verse autobiography Summoned by Bells, plus some extra biographical information.

Into the mix, writer Hugh Whitemore has chucked a few funny stories with a pretty flimsy connection to Betjeman, such as what Winston Churchill said when he saw a picture of the woman Labour politician Tom Driberg was to marry: “Well, buggers can’t be choosers.”

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that Edward Fox doesn’t convince as Betjeman. It’s not just that he’s quite unlike Betjeman physically – though he is.  It’s that he is like Edward Fox - tall, elegant, handsome, slightly raddled Edward Fox, with a lovely voice and distinguished longeurs.

When he ends a love poem on a note of despair – “Little, alas, to you I mean/ For I am old and bald and green” it makes complete sense coming from the portly, untidy Betjeman, but none at all coming from neatly elegant Fox. 

When he describes his schooldays, you can see that the boy in the poem – unsporty and aesthetic – grew up to be John Betjeman.  The boy who might have grown up to be Edward Fox is Betjeman’s nemesis, not mentioned in this show:

“Percival Mandeville, the perfect boy
“Was all a schoolmaster could wish to see –
“Upright and honourable, good at games,
“Well build, blue eyed; a sense of leadership
“Lifted him head and shoulders from the crowd.”

So it is, to some extent, with the selection of Betjeman’s poetry offered here. We learn from the play that Betjeman had a patrician distaste for post Second World War state planning – as he did.  We do not learn that Betjeman disliked Thatcherite capitalism even more:

“You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
“I’m partly a liaison man and partly PRO.
“Essentially I integrate the current export drive
“And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.”

A lifetime ago, when I was a sixth former, I found in the local library a recording of Betjeman reading Summoned by Bells.

Some poets do their own work no favours when they read them – think of that ancient scratchy recording of Hilaire Belloc massacring Tarantella – but Betjeman read his poetry wonderfully, and made Summoned by Bells an extension of his rather quirky, if sometimes disingenous, personality.

Hearing Edward Fox recite it beautifully, I yearned to hear Betjeman recite it less beautifully. Still, Fox does recite beautifully.

Director Gareth Armstrong moves him about the stage enough to make it interesting, and not so much as to make it distracting, and Fotini Dimou’s simple set is just what it should be – a moody backdrop which knows its place and doesn’t try to take over.

It’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s an enjoyable evening in the theatre, well worth an amber/green light.

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