Review: Tom and Clem Aldwych Theatre, London

"So you're an agnostic?" Tom Driberg asks Clement Attlee in Tom and Clem. "Haven't made my mind up yet," replies Attlee, quite unconscious of the joke. It's an exchange that recalls the celebrated line in Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist: "I'm a man of no convictions - at least, I think I am." Indeed, that's one of the problems with Stephen Churchett's play. It continually reminds you of other much better pieces - the Burgess and Blunt plays of Alan Bennett, say, or even Simon Gray's Cell Mates. The author's first full-length drama, it has made the unusual (and I fear unwarranted) leap from unsolicited manuscript to the West End stage, where it comes over as reasonably entertaining, reasonably thought-provoking and unreasonably derivative.

Set in July 1945 at the Potsdam conference, the play imagines an encounter between Attlee, the freshly elected Labour Prime Minister and, there in a journalistic capacity, one of his MPs - the flamboyant, socialist socialite and rampant homosexual, Tom Driberg, a man who gave a new twist to the expression "cottage industry". By all accounts, Driberg was to fellatio what Paganini was to the violin, so it's only to be expected that when Alec McCowen's Attlee first enters the proceedings, Michael Gambon's Driberg should at that moment be under the conference table attempting to demonstrate his skills on Alexei (Daniel de la Falaise), a handsome young Russian soldier.

Doggedly extracting all the comedy it can from Driberg's habits and from Attlee's comparative innocence ("Interesting young chap. Do you intend going down there?" "I beg your pardon, Prime Minister"), the play depicts a clash of temperaments and of approaches to change, with Attlee cast as the pragmatist who believes in achieving the best compromise for the sake of the greater good, and Driberg as the romantic absolutist. The unattractive face of pragmatism is glimpsed when Alexei, who has confided to Driberg his hopes of switching sides when he is posted to London as an intelligence officer, is betrayed by Sarah Woodward's frightfully British Kitty. Because the Brits know his replacement would be of more use to them, Alexei has to be sacrificed.

Like some curt, emotionally inhibited but essentially kindly housemaster, the excellent Alec McCowen let's you see the passionate humanity that lies behind Attlee's comically prim, pernickety facade. Called on to be his exotic, carnal antithesis, Gambon puts on a fine display of sophisticatedly raffish fleshliness, but I can't help feeling that in making Driberg stand for principle and stand up for absolute values, and in catching him at a particularly vulnerable time, just as he is sending back stricken reports on the horrors of Buchenwald, the play does not do dramatic justice to the rich ambiguities and incorrigible ironies in this upper-class snob with extreme left-wing views and High Church compulsive cottager.

The Aldwych is too big a venue for this four-hander and Richard Wilson's production would be a more attractive proposition in, say, Hampstead Theatre. The timing, though, is good. A play set just as a Labour government was about to embark on the creation of the welfare state and a programme of nationalisation opens at a moment when electoral victory is within the grasp of a Labour Party increasingly indistinguishable from the opposition. The audience valiantly endeavours to find the benign similarities between then and now. There's laughter and applause at lines like, "I realised that the Tories just haven't delivered the goods after all the years they have had to do it", and the variously applicable, "If we've got to have Tories, they should at least be gentlemen."

To 26 July. Booking: 0171-416 6003

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence