Sand in the Sandwiches

Hugh Whitemore
Oxford Playhouse
Theatre Royal Haymarket

Edward Fox Credit: Geraint Lewis
Edward Fox Credit: Geraint Lewis
Edward Fox Credit: Geraint Lewis

With the assistance of director Gareth Armstrong, something of a specialist in solo touring shows, Edward Fox becomes Sir John Betjeman for an affectionate 90-minute portrait broken by an interval two-thirds of the way through.

Now 80, Fox does a fine job of remembering his lines and catching the singsong vocal inflections of a man from a bygone age, who rose to become Poet Laureate as well as a knight of the realm.

As a warm-up, Fox recites "A Subaltern's Love-song", the poetic eulogy that immortalised Joan Hunter Dunn, before moving into character and explaining a little about the attractions of this otherwise unheralded wartime heroine.

The evening broadly runs chronologically, starting with school days by the start of which, much to his father’s dismay, young John had already decided that his future lay in a career as a poet.

Although his accent and attitudes are very much those of the upper classes, the aspiring writer’s deaf father Ernest was in trade, selling what would now be considered upmarket tat.

Even as a youngster, Betjeman was something of an aesthete, striking up a postal correspondence with Lord Alfred Douglas not too long after Bosie had sent Oscar Wilde to gaol and an early grave.

At Marlborough, the company was certainly eclectic with contemporaries including Louis MacNeice, James Mason and Anthony Blunt (respectively famous as poet, actor and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures / Russian spy).

Going up to Oxford was not entirely a success because, while the young man had a whale of time within his “queer” circle, he neglected study, being sent down by C S Lewis after failing a divinity exam.

Part of the interest of the evening for many will be the list of sidelines that were required in order to balance the books. These included teaching at a prep school, writing book and film reviews, presenting on television, after-dinner speaking and much more.

Despite the suggested sexual preferences in youth, Betjeman could also appreciate (large) women, getting married above his station to the somewhat fearsome Penelope.

So far, so predictable. Indeed, this could be a portrait of many of the unworldly rich, usually gay-inclined upper classes in the first half of the 20th century.

However, there are some surprises hidden away in the biography, particularly an affair with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, which eventually led to an ultimatum from poor, ill-used Penelope.

The man who said “poetry should be comprehensible and it should rhyme” and believed that this art form was life suffered good and bad fortune in roughly equal measure as he grew older.

The arrival of Parkinson’s disease could not have been easy, although following in the line of the greatest and the best as Poet Laureate must have helped to soften the blow.

The best word to sum up this old-fashioned evening is wistful, given its gentle humour, the long-forgotten memories of the first half of the last century, including two wars viewed from outside. Best of all though is the genial Edward Fox’s wonderful ability to recite the rhyming poems that made his character’s name, if not his fortune, and give them renewed life.

The London run is part of a long UK tour.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher