Theatre

Sand in the Sandwiches at Theatre Royal Bath

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Posted on 13th July 2017

Sand in the Sandwiches

Theatre Royal Bath

12 July, 2017

For such a gentle slice of nostalgia there's been a very Marmite response to Hugh Whitemore's portrayal of former poet laureate and one-time favourite of the nation John Betjeman – you love it or you hate it.

I have to say right away that I – along with Bath's enthusiastic Tuesday night audience – was charmed and immensely enjoyed this latest addition to Bath's summer season, directed by Gareth Armstrong.

Others have faulted the set, a simple backdrop of foliage in changing light, a few leaves and benches on a patio, wanting instead photographs of the characters mentioned, or enactments of various scenes to bring the performance to life. 

Yet others have taken against Edward Fox's one-man portrayal of Betjeman and his 'drawl' (boring!) but I liked all of this. 

Fox puts in a superb performance, mingling memory – much of it drawn from Betjeman's long autobiographical poem Summoned By Bells – with verse. He brings to life a man whose own colourful years, passions and way with words endeared him to a nation not generally known for its love of poets or poetry.

And the fact that the set is unobtrusively, rather prettily, static puts the emphasis on the poet's words. After all, what else does a poet have? Betjeman had words aplenty, both lyrical and pithy, his gentle humour and observance broadening his public appeal.

The play begins with A Subaltern's Love Song, Betjeman's peon of praise to tennis amazon Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, with gin at six and fumbles in the car park in the dark. It ends near his death as he sits cradling his teddy bear Archibald. 

In between we are given glimpses of his life – the running from parental expectations that he would go into the family business, friendships and sexual experimentation at Oxford (“buggery was invented to fill that awkward gap between evensong and cocktails”), name dropping of spies he once knew, love affairs, and letters from his exasperated wife Penelope.

The whole performance is delightful, something more than an intimate poetry reading, something less than the man himself, but a real treat for lovers both of Betjeman and of veteran actor Edward Fox who is no stranger to Bath.

Sand in the Sandwiches comes to Bath direct from London's West End and a run at the Chichester Festival Theatre and is on until Saturday 15 July. For tickets call the Theatre Royal box office on 01225 448844 or go online at www.theatreroyal.org.uk

Jackie Chappell

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