It’s steadily paced, Sand in the Sandwiches, which doesn’t quite fit the frenetic life of Sir John Betjeman, what with television appearances, a colourful personal life, a busy social calendar, charitable works and being Poet Laureate. That said, Edward Fox puts in a mesmerising performance, bringing the spirit and character of Betjeman back to life. There are, perhaps, one or two lines in Betjeman’s poetry that would be misinterpreted and taken completely out of context had they been published today. Mind you, Betjeman, being the intelligent man that he was, would probably have plumped for alternative phrasing in any case. Not that I thought anything was offensive, even by today’s standards. Then again, this is a play that has made an effort to carefully select Betjeman’s many writings into a coherent storyline.
Fox brings out the breadth and beauty, and occasional banality, of Betjeman’s poetry with brilliance. There is only one perspective presented, however, and although letters from his wife and other correspondence is quoted, sometimes at some length, it is only what Fox’s Betjeman wants to be read out or quoted from that makes the cut. An example: it’s made clear he didn’t like CS Lewis, his tutor at Magdalen College Oxford, but what precisely did Lewis think of Betjeman? Having a few more performers and dramatising some scenes that are merely described in this play would enhance the story. At one point, it is revealed a German assistant with limited command of the English language when she was employed by Betjeman’s wife Penelope thought Betjeman’s first name was ‘Shut up’, such was the regularity with which Penelope used that phrase to her husband. Imagine seeing that on stage!
As ever with a one-man show with no costume changes, the transition between scenes is instant, the music in between scenes only really there for dramatic effect rather than to cover some frantic pushing and pulling of props and set. This was a fascinating and partly educational play – I don’t mean to make anyone feel ‘old’ (whatever ‘old’ means), but there’s a whole generation of us now who weren’t around when Betjeman’s larger than life television personality was first broadcast to the nation. It’s pleasing that his literature and legacy lives on.
There are darker moments in all the gentle laughter and observational humour. It’s a fine art painting, portraying the world of Betjeman’s era and the circles in which he moved. He was, amongst many other things, one of those people who loved churches, whilst not subscribing to all of the Church’s traditional doctrine. “Buggery,” Fox’s Betjeman wittily concludes, “was invented to fill that awkward gap between Evensong and cocktails.”
I mean, it’s all incredibly seamless. I found it quite impossible to work out where prose narrative and poetic verse started and finished. I gave up after a while. The set is arguably a tad stale, but this doesn’t matter in a show that could, in theory, be done on a completely bare stage. It’s the poetry that shines here. There’s much to be absorbed and enjoyed by this accessible show about an accessible poet, whatever your level of prior knowledge of Sir John Betjeman. I had no idea his work occasionally bordered on the salacious: “Sometimes I think that I should like / To be the saddle on a bike.” Ha!
Review by Chris Omaweng
Overall, this was an altogether elegant and engaging evening.
Oliver Mackwood, Robert Fox, Jonathan Church and Oxford Playhouse present
EDWARD FOX in Sand in the Sandwiches
A celebration of JOHN BETJEMAN
By Hugh Whitemore
Directed by Gareth Armstrong
Following a sell-out tour, Edward Fox returns to the stage with his acclaimed portrayal of John Betjeman, poet laureate and icon of British poetry.
Sand in the Sandwiches celebrates a man famous not only for light verse and laughter, but for his passions, his sense of purpose and his unforgettable poetry.
Edward Fox stars in this joyous stage play bringing Betjeman’s poetry, sharp wit and vivacious personality to life.
Embracing his delight for nostalgia and delicious irreverence, Sand in the Sandwiches travels through Betjeman’s boyhood and adolescence, to life as Britain’s poet laureate, presenting a hugely entertaining insight into the world of this much-loved poet.
Double BAFTA award winner Edward Fox [OBE] is one of this country’s most eminent actors. His distinguished career counts iconic British films such as The Day of the Jackal, A Bridge Too Far, Oh! What a Lovely War, to name a few.
A £1.50 restoration levy (collected on behalf of the theatre) appears as part of the face value
Booking Period: 30 May – 3 June 2017
Theatre Royal Haymarket
8 Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4HT