Writer: Ben Brown
Director: Alastair Whatley
Allegiance is a peculiar concept, an unfaltering loyalty to something other than us: to countries, to politics and most complexly to friendships. It has a staining presence, particularly in its absence or repentance, and to ‘switch sides’ or betray your supposed allegiance is a branding mark for historians to devour for decades. The name Kim Philby may not mean a tremendous deal to many, but the legacy and impact of the turncoat Soviet spy ripples throughout history and literature. And the name Graham Greene may sit with cinephiles as the writer of one of the industry’s Magnum Opus pieces, The Third Man, but the world-leading novelist was at one point more at home in the halls of MI6.
At the height of the Cold War, inside Kim Philby’s Moscow flat in February 1987, Ben Brown’s A Splinter of Ice dramatizes the final encounter of the two life-long friends as Greene makes a trip to the Soviet Union for business but secretly for more personal reasons. The secret theatre of the world of espionage ripples through the production as the former colleagues reconnect following years apart after Philby’s seclusion and disgrace at betraying the United Kingdom and its allies.
There is no presence of hostility in the relationship between Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) and Philby (Stephen Boxer), even as friends fighting for opposing causes – yet there’s a persistent sense of sizing one another up, such as the microcosms in Davies’ eye movements, the silence as he studies Boxer tracing his way around the stage. Not only does Alistair Whatley’s direction of the production command a sense of understanding power dynamics, but it also unravels the toxic impact of faltered trust. The monolithic capabilities brought to the tangibility of these juggernauts is engrossing in the unwavering characterisation and commitment to the men as mortals, rather than scrutinised memories.
Capturing the harmonious humanity of life, the embrace of murder, the understanding of deception, and the gentility of the cunning , Davies and Boxer manifest an era-defining moment of complexity, narrowed within the sumptuously gorgeous framing of Jason Taylor’s lighting design, and held together with the delicate composition of Max Pappenheim’s score.
If anything, the openness, and faultless performances from the leads cause stagnation when the minor moments take one away from the production. Sara Crowe’s Rufa Philby is an essential if subcutaneous role within the narrative. A presence required but otherwise ineffective in the grand scheme. It’s a performance with less to work with and can’t quite capture the same authenticity others achieve with their substantial dialogue. Gradually, steam begins to evade the production as the pacing slumps somewhat through the middle of the initial act. Davies and Boxer valiantly carry what they can, however, and we locate the dip in Brown’s otherwise spectacularly tense and visceral writing
In the modesty of Philby’s flat, designed by Michael Pavelka, the exchange of ideals and politics takes a backseat to the rekindling embers of friendship. The splintered icicle gradually melts, revealing a tenderness to Brown’s script, refuting any attempts to romanticise or pander. There is no tidy or happy ending, but rather it speaks highly of the rarest currency of all: loyalty.
Available here until 31 July and tours from June 2021