Review: Tom and Clem Aldwych Theatre, London
Wednesday 16 April 1997
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
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 10 ways we damage our teeth – without realising
- 2 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 3 iPhone 'effective power' text: how to be safe from iOS bug that lets people crash your phone
- 4 Photo of wedding guest proposing to girlfriend in front of bride and groom goes viral
- 5 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: it's just gravity — not a Mexican demon being summoned
Royal Academy of Arts' Tim Marlow: Bronze statue of lovers embracing at St Pancras station is a lesson in 'how not to do' public art
Britain's Hardest Grafter: Petition set up as Twitter reacts to BBC 'poverty porn' series pitting low-paid workers against each other
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
Big Brother contestant Aaron Frew removed from house for 'inappropriate behaviour' after flashing fellow contestants
ASAP Rocky gives nauseating response to explicit Rita Ora rap: 'I'm not saying she's a terrible person'
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'