Review: Tom and Clem Aldwych Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
"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