An impressive acting team of 6, led by Timothy West, dredge-up the antics of British defectors from the cold war era in this revival of Alan Bennett's 1977 play 'The Old Country'. It could be said that Bennett has something of a minor obsession with spies - in all, he's written 3 plays about them. He also wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed 1983 film version of his play 'An Englishman Abroad', which focused on spy Guy Burgess and his encounter with actress Corale Brown in Moscow in 1958. But whereas 'An Englishman Abroad' was both intriguing and emotionally compelling, 'The Old Country' is something of a second class citizen in that it fails to grip or draw-in the audience in the same irresistible way, even though Stephen Unwin's direction is hard to fault, and Bennett's script has some great lines, such as the rather patronising: 'You can be second class, and still be first rate'.
I suspect the disparity between Bennett's two pieces is because we don't really have much sympathy for most of the characters in ‘The Old Country' - apart from perhaps Jean Marsh's dignified and long-suffering wife, Bron, or the somewhat pathetic Eric - the naive, working class boy caught up in and yet bewildered by the double-dealing world of the upper classes. Or maybe it's just that things have moved on and the cold war is now just a dusty and distant, duplicitous memory. On the other hand, maybe it's just that we've become jaded by the frequency with which politicians lie, making the idea of treachery - once the biggest lie of all - something that no longer matters much.
There's no doubting, though, that 'The Old Country' is cleverly structured and written. For much of the first half we're successfully duped into thinking that Hilary and Bron are living somewhere in rural England, largely because Bennett drip-feeds us the storyline in a covert way that makes the play seem more akin to a Le Carré spy novel. Piece-by-piece, the jigsaw starts to slot into place, but it takes a while for the penny to drop. Living in a ram shackled country house (or dacha as it turns out to be), Hilary and Bron brood in isolated exile somewhere in the Russian countryside, their only acquaintances being a married couple who also turn out to have spied for the Russians. When Hilary's sister Veronica and her husband (the ever-so well-connected Duff) turn up, Hilary and Bron think it's only a family visit, but of course there’s more to it than that.
Rather unusually for an actor of Timothy West's enormous ability, he stumbled over lines in a surprising number of places, which made me wonder if he might be unwell. But even when not quite at the top of his form, West's performance was convincing and forceful enough to define a character one would prefer not to meet too often. West's Hilary is an overbearing and thoughtless ‘toff’ who feigns concern for the demise of institutions such as the ubiquitous 'Lyons Corner Houses', which he almost certainly never frequented, and probably even lampooned whilst he lived in England.
I particularly enjoyed Susan Tracy as Hilary's sister, Veronica. She had a marvellous laugh with an effortlessly artificial quality to it characteristic of the ‘over well-heeled’, but which also emphasised the striking humour of her lines. Describing London as a 'midden', she tells Bron that she had a cosmetic op' 'to take up a bit of the slack', and informs us that meetings of the Women's Institute cover subjects such as 'trends in foreplay'. It's a finely observed and carefully-timed portrayal, which counter-balances the somewhat outrageous performance by Simon Williams as her husband. For some, Williams's playing might be a bit 'too, too' (as a friend of mine from New York says) but played against West's dry, cynical Hilary, it worked surprisingly well. Dressed in bright red socks and a loud checked suit, Williams produced the archetypal, well-connected liberal; apparently modern, but with dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist written all over him. Brushing aside Eric's accusations of homosexuality as if swatting away an irritating fly, his characterisation reminds us (if any were needed) that if one is 'in with the establishment' one can get away with anything.
It's pretty easy to spot a Bennett play even if you've never seen one before. His characters frequently use the convoluted language of business in describing everyday events, such as '... that was on the agenda', or 'in the xxxx department'. It's a language construct I'm familiar with since it's a prominent feature of conversation in my native Yorkshire - where Bennett also hails from of course. But another hallmark of Bennett’s writing is the well-crafted humour which is fundamental to his ironic style, and there’s a good dollop of that humour in ‘The Old Country’.
By coincidence, Bennett currently features in another West End play - 'Pete and Dud: Come Again' where his time as part of the 'Beyond the Fringe’ team is scrutinised in terms of his relationship with Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore. In terms of overall enjoyment, I much preferred 'Pete and Dud'. But 'The Old Country', though not the best of Bennett’s works, is still a play worth seeing, not only because of the rich humour, but also because of the excellent playing from a highly-talented cast.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says,"Very enjoyably revived" MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A wittily intelligent examination of the entrenched irony that is both a national characteristic and a psychological prison." DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Dazzlingly witty." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "This is as elegant an example as one might wish of a play in which no character is responsible enough to sustain any talk about the human cost of betraying one’s country." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Beautifully written 1977 play, patchily revived."