Melissa Blease reviews Sand in the Sandwiches, starring Edward Fox, which runs at the Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 15 July
Village churches and gin served on the veranda; hot buttered toast, damp Cornish air. First X1s and Ovaltine, Fuller’s angel cake for tea, followed by dinner at the Savoy Grill, Magdalen College and lots of men called Maurice. Ah, we can only be in England anytime between 1930 and 1950, when the way Britain lived back then (and the politics that shaped those changes, to say nothing of the arts scene that so deftly recorded the goings on at the time) was moving on to embrace brave new policies and principles… not least of all for those who would, back then, have hoped to be defined as upper class.
John Betjeman is one of the most popular poets of the 20th century – a status secured by his tenure as Poet Laureate, which he held from 1972 until his death in 1984. He was tutored at Oxford by CS Lewis, he counted Evelyn Waugh, Louis MacNiece and WH Auden among his closest friends, and he hung out in the kind of social circles that regularly met for dinner in London’s grandest hotels. He struck up a close pen-friend relationship with Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas at the age of 14, and flirted with homosexuality at university (“Everyone was queer at Oxford in those days. It was a passing adventure for most young men”); and Archibald Ormsby-Gore, Betjeman’s beloved teddy bear, who he regarded as his closest companion until he died, was Waugh’s inspiration for Sebastian Flyte’s teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited.
He also once outraged his future mother-in-law by turning up for a posh dinner wearing an elasticated bow tie, and argued so much with his wife that their German maid thought his middle name was ‘Shutup’.
Want to know more about the man behind those much-loved, iconic, evocative and often subtly elegiac compositions such as Death in Leamington, The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, Slough, Christmas and A Subaltern’s Love Song, the poem responsible for putting Betjeman’s early muse Joan Hunter Dunn in the literary spotlight for eternity? Then go and see Sand in the Sandwiches – for this is where I gleaned all those fascinating facts about a writer I thought I already knew well. Even if you’re not that interested in Betjeman, go and see it anyway. For Edward Fox – the only actor in Hugh Whitemore’s new play, which brings Betjeman back to life for a whole new generation – offers a masterclass in delivery, pace and charisma, by turn witty, entrancing and dignified, and remorseful, humane and urbane, depending on the memory or circumstance or he (as Betjeman) is recounting.
The dialogue is as well paced as the poet’s own prose, the vocabulary a logophile’s dream, and the set as tastefully elegant as Betjeman’s impeccable cream suit: an English garden strewn with fallen leaves; a gentle autumn creating a backdrop for a not-always-so-gentle man in the autumn of his life.
At times, we could almost be watching an Alan Bennett monologue; the next moment, we’re witnessing a naughty schoolboy risking being sent to bed without his supper for sharing an ‘erotic’ couplet written in collaboration between Betjeman, MacNiece and Auden (“I sometimes think that I should like / To be the saddle of a bike”), recalling Winston Churchill’s quip about a gay MP who was obliged to marry a woman who, by all accounts, was not to be described as an attractive woman (“b***ers can’t be choosers”) and expressing his love for Max Miller and music hall in distinctly ‘lower class’ tones. But at all times, we’re involved in a deeply sincere, nostalgic and ultimately very moving testimonial to a man who once declared “I knew, ever since I could read and write, that I would be a poet.”
If only Betjeman were still here to witness the wonderful tribute that both Hugh Whitemore and Edward Fox have paid to the man who, thank goodness, went ahead and did exactly what he wanted to do – doubtless Betchy would raise several glasses of gin and lime to both of them.