The Old Country, Trafalgar Studios, London

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The Independent Culture

Hailed 30 years ago as brilliant, Alan Bennett's play now seems merely precocious. Hilary (Timothy West), who defected to the USSR 14 years before, and Duff (Simon Williams), jaw-jaw while the audience waits for conflict, action, emotion, anything. The spy complains about the changes, all for the worse, in the country he betrayed; the visiting brother-in-law, vain and self-deluded, embodies them. Hilary's enervated wife (Jean Marsh), "always at gas mark 1," and Duff's improbably sardonic one (Susan Tracy) listen and comment.

Stephen Unwin's production takes place on a wonderfully dusty veranda (by John Gunter). It's more substantial than the characters, all of whom, including a young defector and his wife, sound like Alan Bennett. The smug, insensitive Duff, with his rain of trite wisdom, could be young Alan, ruefully recalled by his older self. Hilary, a grim tortoise with a mind lively as a hare, is a compound of clever-schoolboy jokes and old-mannish grumbling.

Some of the jokes are funny, in a crossword-puzzle-lover's way (a drunk called Johnny Walker could form Alcoholics Eponymous), but they are too few and too mild - the loss of Lyons' tea shops and the traditional C of E service is small beer compared to the material later grumblers have had to work with. The two nattering heads are outshone by Tracy, full of delicious irony and fancy. She listens better than Williams talks - his strident tones and vigorous nods may be an attempt to inject some force into the play, but simply emphasise the caricatural nature of the worst-written part.

Like Bennett's other, weak plays about spies (An Englishman Abroad, A Question of Attribution), The Old Country seems a covert way of writing about homosexuality, which for so long caused him dismay and guilt. Secrecy and disguise are certainly parallel - but betrayal? When Bennett eased up and drew jokes from his characters' personalities rather than his own head, when he allowed them some madness and passion (did he work out that he was betraying no one by being himself?), he wrote the plays which still delight us.

To 6 May, 0870 060 6632 Kate Bassett is away

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