Writer: Hugh Whitemore, with extracts from John Betjamen’s poetry
Director: Gareth Armstrong
Reviewer: David Jobson
John Betjeman is considered a treasured poet of the last century. His nostalgia for the past is loved by many of the older generation who can identify with his era. Now this production, headlined with Edward Fox as the poet himself, has set out to capture that nostalgia. But beyond the rose-tinted glasses, there is a sense that this production lacks subtext.
The first thing to point out is that this is not in the strictest sense a play. It is basically a one-man show, with Edward Fox at the helm as John Betjeman amply entertaining his audience with a stream of recollections, thoughts and recitals of his poetry.
If there’s one reason to see this it would be Edward Fox’s melodic performance. At ease and assured, he relishes Betjeman’s witty ditties, as well as his shades of nostalgia, regret, hope and his concerns about the rapidly advancing modern age.
He provides 90 minutes of entertaining reminisces of his life and works. He wistfully recalls his childhood, beautifully describing his holidays at the seaside and walks along the Norfolk lanes with his father. His occasional witty remarks bring the house down with laughter
His recollections of his love life show us the mirth in his heart, but soon the memory of his affair with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish and its effect on his marriage creeps over his visage. His regret in not visiting his father the very hour he died was also a sombre moment for the audience.
The highlight would be the start of the second act where Edward Fox deftly recites Town Clerk’s View. His lightly mocking performance of this clerk freely envisaging the old English landscape being replaced with suburbs aptly portrays Betjeman’s disapproval.
In the end, however, the ‘play’ lacks depth. Just an overriding sense of nostalgia for the past that this production’s intended audience will enjoy. Also, Hugh Whitemore’s mesh of recollection and poetry leaves you wondering where the verse begins and ends, creating a production that is just as flat as the set.
This show is for a certain demographic, which consisted of an audience who gave this a rapturous applause. Despite the play’s flaws, this critic was still engaged by Edward Fox’s performance, aptly portraying John Betjeman as an intriguing poet to read further about.
Runs until 23 November 2016 then continuing to tour | Image: Geraint Lewis