There can’t be many 80-year-old actors who would do a one-man show, but Edward Fox proves more than equal to the challenge.
The elder statesman of the theatre, probably best remembered as the titular assassin in the 1973 film The Day of the Jackal, first stepped into the shambolic shoes of John Betjeman last November and is now halfway through a UK tour (and yes, younger readers, that is Emilia’s father).
Written by Hugh Whitemore, Sand in the Sandwiches is part poetry recitation, part play. Over the course of 90 minutes and a glass of wine or three, an elderly Betjeman reflects wistfully on his life, segueing between comic anecdotes and his poetry.
Fox isn’t a natural Betjeman. He’s too dapper, too chipper, too posh. Nevertheless, his virtuoso performance brings new meaning and music to some of the Poet Laureate’s most famous verse: A Subaltern’s Love Song, The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, Archibald. The only quibble is his fondness for dramatic flourishes that sometimes chew up the punchlines.
While it’s a pleasure to hear Betjeman so beautifully rendered, it’s the juicy anecdotes in between that really captivate. The Poet Laureate moved in rarefied circles and there’s plenty of name-dropping: Soviet spy Anthony Hunt was a classmate, CS Lewis was his (disliked) tutor at Oxford, Churchill.
Whitemore has resisted the temptation to write a cosy ode. Instead he gently exposes Betjeman’s melancholy side, his broken marriage, the whiff of desperation in his nostalgia for an England decaying as rapidly as his beloved churches.
Sand in the Sandwiches is at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 3 June, then goes on tour to Cambridge, Malvern, Woking, Brighton and Bath