In October, it will be 50 years since the Suez crisis, Britain's aborted invasion of Egypt (in secret collusion with France and Israel) that decisively demonstrated that Britannia no longer ruled the waves. This shameful and shaming episode has subsequently haunted a number of key stage-plays - from John Osborne's The Entertainer to David Hare's Plenty, where it powerfully symbolises England's betrayal of its post-war ideals.
Now, to mark the anniversary, the young dramatist James Graham has written Eden's Empire, a lucid and gripping account of the background and course of the crisis. Provocatively, it alerts you to the parallels and differences between the illegal, oil-conscious attempt at regime-change in the pre-emptive strike against Egypt in 1956 and the recent invasion of Iraq. But it also strives to understand the personal reasons that might help account for Prime Minister Anthony Eden's humiliating miscalculation. The result, premiered in Gemma Fairlie's serious-minded yet also droll production, is an artful mix of historical reconstruction and mischievously handled hindsight.
The dashing, upper-class Eden (Jamie Newall) had to spend many frustrating years as the heir apparent to Churchill, who tormented him by continually postponing his resignation. Given the events of the past few days, there was much wry audience laughter at the similarities here with the predicament of another (would-be) Prime Minister-in-waiting.
In vignettes that view the diplomatic game as a tango of changing partners, and in scenes of private life, we are presented with a picture of Eden as a man deeply influenced by the bitter loss of his son in the Second World War. Did this make him too ready to equate Colonel Nasser (Selva Rasalingam) with Hitler and to fear a repeat of the 1930s policy of appeasement in the international reaction to Egypt's seizure of the Suez Canal?
In the play's slant on events, the real villain of the piece is Eden's ambitious Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor, Harold Macmillan. The hero of the piece is Anthony Nutting, a junior minister who resigned in protest and who is here given lines that could apply to the moral and political flaws in the modern-day illegal, oil-conscious pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Of course, the huge difference is England's relationship with the United States.
In 1956, it was the US's refusal to back the invasion and the consequent run on the pound that forced Eden to withdraw the troops. You might argue that there's a direct link between the realisation back then of England's dependency on the US and Tony Blair's behaviour now (notwithstanding our membership of the EC).
Though the dialogue is not entirely free of history-drama clunkiness, the piece is very sharp on ironies of that sort, and on the paradox that the premiership of Eden, the celebrated gentlemanly diplomat, foundered on the rocks of an uncouth and deceitful foreign policy decision.
Over at the Theatre Upstairs, Levi David Addai's play 93.2 FM gives notice of an attractive new talent. The setting is the on-air studio of a small south London local community radio station. The co-owners, Coach (the immensely appealing Ofo Uhiara) and Bossman (very funny Richie Campbell), are a dynamic duo as disc jockeys and have built up a loyal following with their live phone-ins.
But then Coach wins a talent contest that lands him a possible job with the big-shot City FM. If he takes it, will he be an inspiring symbol of progress for the community or will he be betraying his roots? With additional problems posed by a slacker brother, a demanding girlfriend and the true paternity of the child she's expecting, that question is explored in a play whose buoyant spirit and dialogue are well served by Dawn Walton's warm, cheeky, and well-acted production.
'Eden's Empire' to 30 September (08704 000 838); '93.2 FM' to 16 September (020-7565 5000)Reuse content