History counts for less than the star turns of Michael Gambon and Alec McCowen in Stephen Churchett's 'Tom and Clem'
First there was Tom & Jerry, the story of a cat and a mouse. Then there was Tom and Viv, the story of a poet and his first wife. Now along comes Tom & Clem, the story of an MP and a PM. The imaginary encounter at the 1945 Potsdam Conference between Tom Driberg, Express gossip columnist, homosexual, ex-communist and MP, and Clement Attlee, the dauntingly uncharismatic Prime Minister, might seem a natural subject for Alan Bennett or Simon Gray. The part of Driberg himself could have been written by either of them for Alan Bates.

As it is, the author of this new West End play, Stephen Churchett, is an actor, making his playwrighting debut. He has picked a subject that, for the space of a month or so, is as topical as you could wish. At the centre of Tom & Clem is a debate about the direction in which socialism should go in the wake of a Labour landslide. And Conservatism? Attlee has a line that might be tailor-made for the Tatton voter: "If we've got to have Tories, they should at least be gentlemen."

Churchett's entertaining, if frustrating play opens, wittily enough, in Rob Howell's set of a high-ceilinged panelled room, with a Russian- speaking man and woman taking down Churchill's portrait and replacing it with Attlee's. This device, and the fact that they suddenly break into English - they are bilingual - suggests we are in the hands of a theatre pro.

As a theatre pro, Churchett isn't that intimidated by chronology. Driberg arrives one July afternoon at Potsdam and files a news story about his visit to Buchenwald (which he made in April). In the evening Driberg reads the news off the teleprinter about the dropping of the first atom bomb in Japan (which happened in August). In the space of half a day we have covered five months.

Driberg drinks schnapps, flirts with the Russian officer and dictates his notes about Buchenwald down the phone to a Fleet Street copy taker. This is fairly dodgy ground. Driberg went to Buchenwald as part of a Parliamentary delegation and his report was published as a Government White Paper. If any subject might be allowed to resist a colourful rewrite for the West End, it is this one.

What pleasure Tom & Clem offers doesn't lie in the recreation of a moment in history, but in the star turns. As Driberg, Michael Gambon lollops round the stage: his hands flap about, a silk hanky flops out of his army jacket. He skips up on to the window ledge to gaze out at men passing below, just as Rupert Everett used to in Another Country. He is a predator who aims to please whoever will let him. "You have friends in the ballet?" he asks the Russian officer, with a rush of interest. He outrages and is outraged. When he subsides in tears, it sounds like the muted toots from the wind section.

Alec McCowen is Gambon's polar opposite: as neat and grey as his three- piece suit. McCowen expresses himself with the firmness and clarity of someone filling in a form in triplicate. With his pipe, his modesty, his precision and manners, he glows with the worthy dullness of an environmentally- friendly lightbulb. Here is a man whose metaphor for politics is an English garden and who relaxes between sessions with Stalin and Truman by reading Dorothy L Sayers. Dullness here exerts its own fascination: we want to know more.

The formidable performances in Richard Wilson's production compensate for the absence of period atmosphere. We never sense this room is part of a building. This isn't helped by Churchett resorting to the stand- bys of farce: McCowen walks in just as Gambon has climbed under the table to fellate the Russian officer, and so on. I lost track of the number of reasons why these four needed to come in and out of one room. But then there are only four in the cast. The play is funny, but the jokes rely again and again on innuendo. "Lost my shag," says McCowen, looking for his tobacco. "You too, Prime Minister?" replies Gambon. And the joke that provides the curtain line for Act One is as old as the period.

Sarah Woodward catches the brusque professionalism of a WRNS Officer: "I may be unshockable," she reproaches Gambon, "but I can be bored." As the Russian officer, who wants to defect and confides in Driberg, Daniel de la Falaise never lets his accent obscure his intelligence.

The play scores, not in the twists of the defection sub-plot, but in McCowen's second-act monologue. He begins with a single thought about compromise, builds into a three-page speech and ends up standing on the table singing. Few actors have the force of mind - a combination of exactness and immediacy - to present this without a hint that it is a set-piece.

As Gambon listens, his face sinks into his collar, like a squashed pillow, revealing the melancholy beneath his flamboyance. The flaw in Tom & Clem is that this exchange of views, between Attlee's belief in compromise and Driberg's "revolution with tears", doesn't take their own relationship anywhere. Neither changes their mind on account of what the other has said. In this respect Tom & Clem resembles politics more than drama.

If you are going to do a play about therapy, it's a smart move to get away from the couches, cardigans and murmurs of support, and place the issues smack in the middle of a war zone. In Cracked, another play by another actor, Daniel Hill, we follow the Field Psychiatric team that the British Army sent out to the Gulf as the war was about to start. The plan was to treat the soldiers at once for battleshock and then send them back to the lines. In the desert, the members of the Psychiatric Unit have enough problems of their own without taking on anyone else's. As they prepare for their task, through role-play exercises (Hill has done his research), they stir up just the anxieties within themselves that they are out there to soothe in the casualties.

Cracked is half way, but only half way, towards being a cracker. The sense of the war zone comes and goes in Terry Johnson's Hampstead production: as the characters put up the tent, take on and off their combat gear, and duck as the jets fly over. Like most army plays, Cracked suffers from cross-sectionalism, with as many regions and classes as possible getting a look-in. We have, for instance, the Bible-reading Brummie David Horovitch sparring with the Clydeside toughie, Nigel Terry. Nor could I work out the connection between this Unit's work in the Gulf and the prominence given to Horovitch's description of his son's autism. But this is a play that makes the effort to think big, by locating the familiar somewhere else.

The Goodbye Girl, a musical comedy based on Neil Simon's play, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Don Black, arrives in the West End with 10 new songs and a severe attacks of the cutes. You would have to eat your way through a Viennese cake shop to achieve a similar intake of sugar. The cosiness of the storyline is as schematic as the homely Manhattan interior. Ann Crumb, a good singer, but miscast in a Neil Simon comedy, plays the mother who's always dumped by men, and Gary Wilmot plays the actor who wins her round with an excess of Saturday night TV charm. The Goodbye Girl has nightmare moments, many of which centre round the squeakily obnoxious 11-year-old daughter (convincingly played, I regret to say, by Lucy Evans). When she tells her mum "to get a life", I wanted to push her face into a plate of blancmange. Only Shezwae Powell's Big Mama routine as the landlady gives the show a kick up the pants.

'Tom & Clem': Aldwych, WC2 (0171 416 6003). 'Cracked': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301). 'The Goodbye Girl': Albery,WC2 (0171 369 1730).

Comments