A Splinter of Ice

Ben Brown
Original Theatre Company
Cheltenham Everyman Theatre

Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer Credit: James Findlay
Oliver Ford Davies, Sarah Crowe and Stephen Boxer Credit: James Findlay
Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer Credit: James Findlay

The British public can never get enough of stories of espionage. Whether it is fiction of John le Carré and Graham Greene or stories about the Cambridge spy circle of the 1950s, we always lap them up.

Therefore, Ben Brown is surely on to a winner with A Splinter of Ice. He already has strong credentials as the man behind Three Days in May, which inspired Oscar winner Darkest Hour.

This new work, which starts on video and then goes out on the road from 8 June, features a fictionalised version of a meeting that took place between Graham Greene (attending a high-profile anti-nuclear peace conference) and his former MI6 boss and Cambridge spy Kim Philby at the latter’s Moscow apartment in 1987.

Those with long memories will immediately think of Alan Bennett’s pair of plays, Single Spies, which explore similar territory and particularly the first of those, An Englishman Abroad, in which actress Coral Browne visited Philby’s co-conspirator Guy Burgess.

Director Alan Strachan (assisted by Alastair Whatley) is lucky enough to have been blessed with a dream cast.

Oliver Ford Davies is a tentative but wry Graham Greene, while Stephen Boxer portrays Kim Philby as a man very much at home in Moscow 25 years after his rushed immigration, seemingly having few regrets about his treacherous spying career and the loss of reputation at home.

Instead, he is now much fêted and happily married fourth time around to Sara Crowe’s archetypal housewife, Rufa. Despite his Russian affiliations, Philby struggles with the language and maintains many of his English predilections and tastes, for example devotion to mustard, marmalade and cricket scores from home. A novelist with a past in journalism makes for a perfect Inquisitor, Ford Davies selflessly teasing out the spy’s life story.

One of the pleasures to be derived from this historical drama is a picture of Soviet Russia in its last days. On one level, the operations of the KGB are sinister, with the likelihood that each word spoken will be monitored by spies listening to bugs in Philby’s home. More amusingly, in an effort to create the right impression to the West, “loo paper” becomes an integral weapon for the spying agency. By way of contrast, MI6 comes across as very English and blimp-ish, both when vetting the ex-communist and then when failing to identify him as a double agent.

Although one inevitably learns morsels about the novelist, act one largely concentrates on the Philby biography, including his thesis that Greene had early suspicions and used him as a source for Harry Lime in The Third Man, the film music for which acts as a theme.

After the interval, act two delves more deeply into the psychology of the traitor and the motivations of a man who would sacrifice anything to the cause of Communism. The 90-minute drama is also spiced up by an invitation that changes the nature of the visit and the relationships but also a secret revealed by Rufa.

A Splinter of Ice is a low-key but enjoyable, speech-driven play that feels like an accurate portrayal of the life and times of Kim Philby and, at the same time, gives at least an impression of Graham Greene’s double life as a spy and novelist.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher