Edward Fox is John Betjeman in a hilarious play
7 Jun 2017
Is there an actor stylish, handsome and talented enough to take to the stage for a one-man show about a poet? It is a tough call. A single voice for an entire performance, no support, no add-ons or diversions, just the relentless power of a one mesmerizing actor. Hard to pull off.
But Edward Fox, who first swam into public gaze as the steely faced assassin in Day of the Jackal has fascinated audiences ever since. Last night he captivated a rapt audience at the Cambridge Arts Theatre at the start of his week-long run as John Betjeman, the mannered snobbish and hugely entertaining poet laureate who stormed to success in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
It is surely a lonely task to bring a complex man like him alive. Just a chair, a snatch of tinkling piano and one change of costume. But in what felt like precious time in the company of one of Britain’s most accomplished actors, an adventure unfolded in the potent hour and fifty minute show Sand in the Sandwiches.
Betjeman’s life was ordinary enough for a well-to-do man, the only son of a prosperous lino manufacturer based in London. Yet the character Edward Fox conjures on stage is a rebel, a young man who can see how absurdly pompous he was but who nevertheless wanted from the time he was a little boy, to be a poet. Betjeman brought poetry to people in a new way; his imagination and the deep sensitivity to England’s lush always summery landscape made him a huge hit.
In this quite astonishingly brilliant play, Fox's performance allows us to enjoy the fun and the humour as well as the beauty of his gorgeous poems. Cunningly they are woven into the play and recited with such brilliance and subtlety they simply become part of the play’s fabric.
Posh is his register, but Fox can do different shades of posh – from pompous to playful. Betjeman recalls what a disappointment he was to his father, how he got sent down from Oxford and tried to earn his living as a games master at a small prep school. The description of him uselessly trying to play cricket in the full view of his trusting pupils was only part of the hilarity that being John Betjeman involved. Soon he was in journalism and television, falling in love with the kind of tall athletic young woman he admired in his poems. It didn't sound a success.
The yearning beauty of his poems floats back again and again to childhood and the smells and sounds of his English country holidays. Edward Fox’s way of telling a story is quite simply astonishing, the pace, the teasing, the throwaway line at the end made a sequence of autobiographical notes just compelling listening. But it was the poems he delivered, seemingly effortlessly, that made this evening so special.
Aided by a script by the talented Hugh Whitemore, Fox lead his audience into a dreamy world of childhood, evoking the beauty of Norfolk and Cornwall where the wistful Betjeman spent his holidays. Somehow Fox conjures the magic to enchant the audience with these casually delivered poems, naturally falling between anecdotes of outrageous sexuality and hilarious cheek.
It’s rare to feel privileged in the theatre but in the presence of this exceptional actor, as he brought to life warmth and vibrancy the work of a man who worried his poems were never good enough, there was a sense of wonder. Between the splendid direction, the lovely script and the incomparable beauty of the poetry, Fox created a rare magic both moving meaningful and most of all funny.
A chance to experience a play of this quality by one of Britain's most celebrated stars about the work of its most endearing modern poet is rare indeed.