John Betjeman is one of those seemingly ubiquitous figures, beloved by history, who appears here and there to add a bit of comforting familiarity to a story, or a soupçon of rightness to a cause. Any number of biographers ascribe to him a quality of lovelorn hopelessness in his romantic affairs, and he is forever associated with lending his name to causes devoted to saving bits of Britain’s architectural history.
Betjamin is, of course, one of Britain’s best-loved poets. My personal favourite is “A Subaltern’s Love Song”, where the narrator rhapsodises about Joan Hunter Dunne, “Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun.” His work is light, whimsical, harmless. It’s nostalgic, and often comforting. And so is “Sand in the Sandwiches”, the one-man play written by Hugh Whitemore to celebrate Betjamin’s fusty, avuncular appeal.
Edward Fox is Betjamin. There’s no one quite like Fox. His voice is so plummy, his face so singularly creased, his presence so large, it’s almost difficult to see beyond the Edward Fox-ness of him. But he becomes Betjamin, and several other characters besides. He recites with great passion (or as he would say “pyashion,”) even as he strolls casually about the stage. He takes obvious pleasure in the jokes, japes, and anecdotes which litter the script, and where other actors might teeter over into hamminess, Fox steers his performance into something more pleasingly real. He looks so at home in a linen three-piece you can believe it’s what he wears at home. It’s a treat and a pleasure to watch him.
The play itself is insubstantial. An ode, a puff piece. The biographical bits on Betjamin are interesting, and the anecdotes ( like what Churchill reportedly said when he heard Tom Driberg was to be married,) are funny, but the whole effect is more cozy armchair evening and less theatrical event. There is a great deal of Betjamin’s verse, as you would expect, but this too, is much of a muchness after a while. There needs to be more Betjamin, less Betjamin’s poetry. (Heresy! But it is a play. Arguably there should be less recitation and more drama.)
But whatever the shortcomings of the script, an evening with Fox is a gift.
Sand in the Sandwiches is at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 3rd June.