THEATRE / Spies like us: Paul Taylor reviews Michael Hastings's Unfinished Business at the Pit, London

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The Independent Culture
Locking the door before listening to the radio might seem an excessive precaution, even during the Second World War. But then, Lord Sheffield and the guests he is harbouring in his stately pile (the Bishop of Devon; a senior police officer) aren't about to tune in to a pep talk from Churchill.

It's the illegal New British Broadcasting station that is this group's preferred listening - their motive the same as that which prompts them to stand out in the garden willing on the Luftwaffe as it roars overhead.

The folk at the centre of Unfinished Business, Michael Hastings's ambitious new play in the Pit, aren't mere appeasers like the Cliveden set, they are out-and-out Fascists. Their aim is to yoke the British and German empires in united resistance to Communism and Jews, and to preserve the mystical purity of the Saxon race.

The events in 1940 are presented in flashback. A 17-year-old schoolboy at the time, Beamish, Lord Sheffield's heir, is now an unrepentant, self-impoverished oldster (Geoffrey Bayldon) stuck in a nursing home that happens, ironically enough, to be the very mansion where the story took place.

By a further coincidence, worthy of The Comedy of Errors, the nurse watching his re-enacted memories with him gradually emerges as none other than his own illegitimate daughter. Her mother was Feebs, the young maid (Monica Dolan) whom the golden, arrogant 17-year-old Beamish (Toby Stephens) wooed with visions of a life together in an Aryan pastoral idyll, all folk songs and ancient herbal remedies.

As the authorities closed in on the Fascist family, however, the young Beamish summarily dismissed her. An ambiguous gesture: plain cruel, or cruel to be kind, freeing her from guilt by association? The elderly Feebs is soon at hand to put Beamish straight about what happened to her for admitting the identity of the father of her 'Nazi baby' (forced separation and sterilisation). The character is most sympathetically played by Diana Coupland, and the bitter failed reconciliation with which the drama concludes enables Hastings to highlight incorrigible features of Beamish's Fascist mentality (in particular, his romantic and quite self-deceived identification with working people), but even Steven Pimlott's clear, fluent production cannot mute the deafening creaks of contrivance.

With the Bishop of Devon smuggling in grenades and machine-guns, and hanky-panky both sexual and tactical up in the attic, the events in 1940 are presented, mostly, as black comedy. Treading a wobbly path between sanity and madness, there's an inscrutable young butler (excellent Jasper Britton) who, like some refugee from a Pirandello piece, decides he can best play the part of all-obliging butler by taking on the role his master suspects him of filling, that of a Secret Service spy. It is a charade that costs him his life, and leaves his murderer, Lord Sheffield (Philip Voss), suicidal upon realising the truth.

The initially droll scene in which Beamish discovers his father, looking more than a little foolish hanging about with a noose rather than on the end of one, turns into an eerie demonstration of Fascism's reliance on a spurious myth of might.

Strickenly, his lordship confesses that this cowardly failure to commit suicide disqualifies him from all his previous beliefs and he begs his distraught son to save his honour by giving him a push. More dramatic than all the talk about the superiority of Saxon culture and about Fascism as essentially desire, this episode also produces the play's most chilling line. As his younger self steels himself to push, the contemporary Beamish cries: 'The only thing I killed that night was weakness]'

In rep at the Pit, Barbican Centre, London EC2 (071-638 8891)

(Photograph omitted)

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