Hugh Whitemore’s play looks at the life and work of John Betjeman, one of Britain’s most celebrated poets. Edward Fox plays Betjeman in this one-man play directed by Gareth Armstrong and it is light and traditional play. As light as one of Betjeman’s poems but not at all fluffy. The simple set design by Fotini Dimou is aided beautifully by Howard Harrison’s light design
It is a brutally honest look at a man, from his boyhood to his diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Fox, who is 80, doesn’t falter in this difficult part where he moves between verse and script seamlessly and gives off a lot of energy (even for a man who is sitting down a lot). Whitemore’s script is rich in its imagery; you can imagine all the people in Betjeman’s life from his father, his wife, his father-in-law and his long term partner.
Fox manages to make Betjeman seem excellent company over the two-hour running time. There is no big climax, just a gentle wander through Betjeman’s life, his friends and everything that made him. I think what struck me about Betjeman that he wasn’t just a poet, his main job was as a film critic and it clear Whitemore is a screenwriter, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a piece that ends up on the screen in some form as it would benefit, rather than be ruined, by flashbacks.
It is a play about tradition, though Betjeman feels quite modern in some approaches it is ultimately a story about a man looking back fondly on his life (as he looked back in his poetry), not a particular time period. In a world where people want “their country back” (though Betjeman was a great admirer of Victoria society) this could easily become a play about the good old days but it keeps the right level of healthy nostalgia; regrets but also memories of being youthful, such as his trips cottaging with W.H Auden in Oxford. I can see why many (especially young) audiences would struggle with this but it is very much a play aimed at the older generations and its touring venues (Guildford and Salisbury remain on the tour) confirm that.
Not all plays have to be hard hitting, some plays need a gentle pace and a look at a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore because the past is the past.