Theatre: Supermac: Tory lord of misrule

A brace of new plays has brought two of the Tory Party's finest hours to the West End stage
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In A Letter of Resignation, there's a tremendous insistence on the general splendidness of John Profumo and his family. Fine, fine man; lovely, lovely wife; great, great shame. All perfectly true, but it can't help sounding as if Hugh Whitemore's play is trying to salve its own slightly uneasy conscience about dragging up the Profumo affair yet again.

The Profumos have been through scandal, they've been through the movie Scandal, and they've been the subject of innumerable post mortems conducted by people who will be some way behind them in the queue at the pearly gates.

No, I am not suggesting that it isn't perfectly legitimate to write a play like A Letter of Resignation, but I do think it a bit rich of Whitemore (scriptwriter of C4's current adaptation of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time) to have said in this newspaper that he hoped John Profumo would come to see it and soak up "the sympathy and understanding" with which he's treated.

This is doubly disingenuous. For it's only by raking up the marital misery of Harold Macmillan, long-term cuckold of the Kray-fancying Bob Boothby, that Whitemore manages to put in a word for Profumo, the disgraced Minister of War in Macmillan's 1963 Conservative government. The idea is that Macmillan could have helped Profumo by confronting him directly but couldn't face this because of the personal bad memories the affair triggered.

I think it most unlikely, however, that 35 years from now the West End will be playing host to a drama about, say, the Tory Party and the arms- to-Iraq scandal. Why? Because, unlike this, that story does not have the twin pullers: class and sex, nobs and their knobs. So A Letter isn't perhaps quite as principled as it imagines.

The play shows us Macmillan being informed of Profumo's resignation by an MI5 emissary while on a shooting holiday up in Scotland. Not trusting the audience to know much of the background, it starts off with such a thorough briefing session you feel that at any moment someone will remind the PM exactly which party he's leading. All pained honour and quavering like some weakened walrus, Edward Fox does a moving turn as Macmillan doing his moving turn as the gruffly gracious Edwardian grandee passing, with a kind of wise bemusement, through the second major upheaval of English values in his lifetime.

Whitemore throws in a lot of anecdotage (people who like stories about Diana Cooper and "Sligger" Urquhart et al will be in seventh heaven), some speculation about MI5 being caught with its knickers down over the Russian spy Ivanov, and a painful memory-flashback to the day when Macmillan's wife Dorothy (played with a bouncy aristocratic brusqueness by Clare Higgins) told him she was pregnant by Boothby. In many of the best plays about politics, you're made to feel that a private flaw has sealed the public's fate. But here, despite some dark references to Macmillan's dominating mother and to his bouts of depression, you don't really sense that events were necessitated by something at the core of Macmillan's nature. Hence the play is elegiac without being truly tragic. And, as was the case with Stephen Churchett's recent play about Clement Attlee and Tom Driberg, people are simplified in order to stand for principles.

The last honourable resignation from a Tory cabinet was perhaps that of Lord Carrington over the Falklands. That conflict is the setting for Faith, Meredith Oakes's new play at the Royal Court. It kicks off from a great idea. Imagine that you'd decided to get away from it all by decamping to a remote desert island; then, lo and behold, a Blue Peter team descend on the place to film some eco-friendly holiday footage. If you think that scenario is bad, put yourself in the skin-tight jeans of Sandra (Elizabeth Chadwick): a jumped-up racist little madam from Brixton, where she hated the "war" and the "wogs", she and her family think they have found peace in Falklands exile. Try telling that to the Argies, let alone the British Army.

It's an intriguing perspective but Oakes fails to follow it through. When the Brits capture an American mercenary, the play lapses into an inert and unprovocative edition of The Moral Maze on the ethics of what is worth fighting for and whose orders one should obey. At the centre, there's an unravelling, conscience-stricken Sergeant (Howard Ward), who seems more like the kind of chap you'd run into on a weekend creative writing course than on a battlefield. You sit through most of John Burgess's uncompelling staging with a sigh of resignation.

`Letter of Resignation': Comedy Theatre, Panton St, London SW1 (0171- 369 1731). `Faith': Royal Court (Ambassadors), West St, WC2 (0171-565 5000)

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