Writer: Ben Brown
Director: Alan Strachan
We are understandably fascinated by the lives of the British spies who defected to Moscow in the 1950s and 1960s. For the most part they were public school and varsity chaps, with very English habits, so how did they find life without cricket and the Times crossword? Were they feted in Moscow or an embarrassment to the Soviet government? How free were they? Did they miss England?
A Splinter of Ice, rightly or wrongly, will be compared with Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad. Though set many years later, it is similarly based on a meeting which really happened between a defector and a British visitor. There the similarity ends. Coral Browne’s meeting with Guy Burgess, re-told in the Bennett play, was coincidental and she was willing to share her recollections with the playwright, even appearing in the play as herself. In the meeting Ben Brown dramatizes, Kim Philby welcomed an old friend, Graham Greene, who later would not reveal anything of their conversation. The most important distinction between the two, however, is that An Englishman Abroad, originally a television play, was presented on stage as half of a double bill; A Splinter of Ice, advertised by Original Theatre as 2 hours, 20 minutes including interval, ran half an hour shorter, 90 minutes of stage time, the only reason for an interval being to make a break for dinner (Greene and the Philby’s, not the audience!).
Ben Brown has researched thoroughly and his play is assured and urbane, but it doesn’t go anywhere much. In Act 1 Philby’s charming Russian wife, Rufa, fusses over Greene on arrival, then heads for the kitchen. 50 minutes later she announces dinner. Between her two appearances it’s just two chaps sitting there talking, except that now and then one walks around a bit, mainly Philby towards the vodka bottle. The second act has a sharply sympathetic little scene between Greene and Rufa (while Kim washes up) and some five minutes of drama when guilt and atonement become an issue (all the agents Philby sent to their death), but mainly it is more of the same.
What is undeniable is that Original Theatre’s production offers a masterclass in theatre from two consummate professionals. Oliver Ford Davies as Graham Greene has this uncanny ability to play the text and character on two levels – he constantly elicits the mystery he denies – and his inflections on single syllable answers such as “Yes” or “Good” are infinite. Stephen Boxer as Philby projects the character’s contradictions perfectly in a mixture of upper-class English manners, suspicion, assertions of happiness and increasing loneliness – or, to be more accurate, dependency on Rufa. As for Rufa herself, the part is distinctly underwritten, but Karen Ascoe brings out her devotion, her humour and her independence superbly.
In Michael Pavelka’s skeleton set, filled with comfortably dowdy furniture, Alan Strachan directs a risk-free production graced by some fine performances.