A Marvellous Year For Plums – May 2012

7/10

By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th May 2012

This is the second play in the main house this year, and I’m already a little worried that this anniversary celebration of Chichester’s 50 years is recalling the blander offerings of the past rather than the much stronger work of recent years. This new play was enjoyable enough but has some problems, and while it was always likely to appeal to the traditional Chichester audience profile, it’s doubtful whether it would make its mark elsewhere. The cast did their best, of course, and looked relieved to receive a warm response at the end, but the play needs work to realise its potential.

Stories about the Suez crisis are semi-topical in this day and age, but even with such relatively recent history a lot of exposition is going to be necessary, and this can tend to slow things down, as well as leading to some clunky dialogue at times. The set was broad brush, allowing for quick-ish changes of scene, and created a hazy effect of memories surfacing and time being fluid. With the appearance of Eden senior at various times, this style pointed to a focus on one man’s life, the central character in the British involvement in Suez, but the rest of the play didn’t support this take. With the introduction of Hugh Gaitskill, and his affair with the wife of Ian Fleming, author of the Bond stories, the play became about the levels of deceit that were commonplace amongst the political elite at that time, and could have been suggesting that the prevalence of such loose morals was a factor in the decisions that were made. Unfortunately, the play never got round to that sort of suggestion; while I’m all for writers letting the audience make up its own mind about these things, this was so neutral as to be negligent. I was more inclined to see the possibility of Eden’s health problems as a contributing factor, although again that wasn’t given any real consideration.

As a retelling of the story of the events leading up to the Suez crisis it worked well enough, given that Harold MacMillan was noticeably absent, but there was very little sense of tension – we do know the result, after all – and the story was only partially told, with big jumps in the timeline and only fleeting references to the political fallout. With a similar offering from the National in recent years – Howard Brenton’s Never So Good, which told Harold MacMillan’s story – this play seemed very unsure of itself, and would benefit from being tightened up and given a clear focus and through story.

Having said all that, it was still enjoyable enough, despite the structural issues and some awkward staging. The set had a strip revolve which helped with the scene changes, but as the floor was slanted, I did find it funny, and even alarming at first, to see tables and chairs sliding off the stage as if by gravity. The dancing that was used to cover the scene changes was also a distraction; it seemed to signal the time changes, but as the dancers could also be characters, I wasn’t sure if we were meant to get something else out of it. Also, this device was used to much better effect in Never So Good; using it here in such a similar piece was unfortunate – looked like copying, although perhaps it was intended as a homage?

The dates were projected onto the back wall, which was a montage of country estate and London posh, and which was used to show a lot of video footage during the evening, including some large scale pictures of speeches made by Eden and Gaitskill on stage. I’m sorry to report that I spent more time checking the pictures against the reality to see if the video was live or recorded than I did listening to the speeches, which were the usual political blather. (I got the impression they were pre-recorded.)

The play began with some music, and as the chandelier was lit and raised up, there were some dancers gliding across the floor – why? I‘ve no idea what we were meant to take from this. I did wonder if the chandelier had been left hanging low down and raised up so that we would actually notice it, but as it came into play later on that was unlikely. After this puzzling opening, Eden came on and stood near the front of the stage, speaking some words in Arabic, while the script appeared on the back wall. He said the lines in English afterwards – ‘the moving finger writes…’. Unfortunately, in the gloom I saw Eden’s face as being very like Hitler’s, and with the guttural sounds of Arabic being not unlike German, I wondered for a brief moment or two if this was what we were being shown – a speech from Hitler which had been a strong influence on Eden’s life. I suspect that similarity wasn’t intended, and perhaps I’m the only one who saw it this way, but even so this opening was muddled and low-key; not a good start.

The first proper scene was between Eden and Nutting, whose position was never entirely clear but who seemed to be involved with the Foreign Office in an economic role. He was the main sounding board for Eden’s rants about Nasser, and later resigned over the deceit involved in the Suez operation. He also put the case for giving the Arabs, including Egypt, more support rather than less through this transition period. Eden stuck to the old Imperialistic attitudes, lumbering, dinosaur-like, to his doom. Nutting, a married man, was also having an affair, although what that had to do with anything wasn’t clear. He was missing for a large chunk of the second half – resigning your post will do that to a character – and only turned up again for the final flourish, a meeting with Selwyn Lloyd, in which we learn that Nutting has written a book about Suez. It was in this conversation that Selwyn Lloyd also delivered the long-awaited punchline ‘a marvellous year for plums’. Having a good title is all very well, but leaving it to the last minute to show us the connection simply weakened the effect. I would have preferred to use the old standard of starting the play with this meeting, going into flashback, and rounding the play off with the title line – it’s hackneyed, true, but it works. Of course, the interior Eden would have to be shelved in this version, but that’s a price worth paying in my view, as those parts didn’t work for me anyway.

Selwyn Lloyd was involved a lot throughout the play, not just at the end, and helped to hold the story together. A nice performance from David Yelland, this character gave us the legal and political insights of the situation, including the possibility that the Americans would have ‘winked’ at the British and French continuing their attack on Egypt, if it had produced the desired result of removing Nasser from power. History is full of such examples of the importance of deniability.

Hugh Gaitskill and Ann Fleming were ably played by Nicholas le Provost and Imogen Stubbs, although neither was stretched by these fairly standard roles, and I’m not sure what Gaitskill’s involvement was meant to achieve. He did introduce a letter published in the Times which neatly expressed the despair felt by many people who had to watch their country’s involvement in an illegal ‘police operation’, but as the letter was read by the writer herself (up on the balcony), I’m still not clear about his role in the play. Ann Fleming was a close friend of Clarissa Eden, and her involvement was necessary to show us the personal view, while Ian Fleming’s contributions were always enjoyable – a good performance by Simon Dutton – but Gaitskill’s inclusion suggests too much research on the part of the writer, and too much concern to cover all the angles.

Clarissa Eden was played by Abigail Cruttenden, and was all that could be wished for – beautiful, charming, intelligent, and a strong support for her husband. Antony Andrew’s Eden was good, though I would have preferred his vocal delivery to be less accurate, as Eden’s strangulated tones made it hard to hear his lines a lot of the time. He certainly captured the sense of a man out of his time, and struggling to make old attitudes work in a new world. His breakdown on stage was uncomfortable to watch, as it should be, and although he made some terrible choices, it was hard not to like the man, and feel that he was indeed honourable at his core.

Martin Hutson did a good job as Anthony Nutting, and I was particularly impressed as the last time we’d seen him was as the uber-villain Prince John in The Heart of Robin Hood in Stratford. Ian Fleming commented on the importance of a good villain in his stories – how true. The supporting cast all did fine work, the dancers especially, and the costumes were all lovely and suitably period. Daniel Easton did a nice turn as John Prescott, a steward on a cruise ship who was studying history and wanted to go into politics; despite seeming unlikely, I gather that John Prescott was indeed a ship’s steward and did indeed meet Eden when he took his post-Suez cruise in 1957.

I enjoyed this performance well enough; my dissatisfaction is largely based on the sense that there’s a good play in there somewhere, and if they can rework the material enough to get it out, then I would be delighted to watch the result. As it is, this is not one to see again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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