The Patriotic Traitor

Jonathan Lynn
Park Theatre

Tom Conti and Laurence Fox

In its relatively short lifetime, the Park Theatre has built a reputation for punching above its weight when it comes to attracting big names.

It has done it again for this dual bio-drama about a pair of proud French warriors and statesmen.

Jonathan Lynn, the playwright and director, will always be remembered as half of the team behind Yes (Prime) Minister. His two stars are arguably of equal or greater stature, Tom Conti a much-lauded, now veteran heartthrob and Laurence Fox, following in his footsteps wooing the millions in Lewis, not to mention hitting the headlines as Billie Piper's husband.

The Patriotic Traitor opens in 1945 as Conti's disgraced, 89-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain awaits a likely death sentence from Fox playing his friend turned nemesis, General Charles De Gaulle.

The evening then tracks back a generation to the period leading up to the Great War. At that stage, De Gaulle was an ambitious young soldier going to considerable lengths in order to turn military theorist Pétain into his mentor.

The pair were chalk and cheese, the older man a humorous womaniser and his acolyte a tediously humourless intellectual with a penchant for Oscar Wilde and philosophers stretching from the Greeks to Nietzsche.

Somehow, they bonded and formed a united front during that War to end all Wars, opposing French generals at least as gormless as the legendary Brits who sacrificed their men like confetti.

By the end of that conflict, both were sobered but determined and, as war and Hitler approached, they each rose to power in the army but also began to make in-roads in political circles.

It was pragmatic Pétain's misfortune to become Premier at the wrong moment, faced with the choice of collaboration or humiliation, eventually achieving both in swift succession by turning his country over to the German enemy and establishing a puppet government in Vichy.

In doing so, he gave way to his junior colleague, who himself eventually became President, and the figure who rescued his country from ignominy with the assistance of the Free French on our side of the English Channel.

In a rather static production, Jonathan Lynn relies on his portrayals of the two men to tell their stories. Conti sympathetically depicts Pétain as a contrary strategist whose tactics work far better on the battlefield than on the global stage.

De Gaulle comes over as a figure of fun, so rigid that it is difficult to see why his wife married, let alone loved, him. Only in the final scenes does he become a human being, very much against the stilted and stultified character seen up to that point.

The best moments of a 2½-hour production come through conflict in moments of crisis, with the two men at each other’s throats.

The Patriotic Traitor has its moments of humour but is largely a dry historical piece that attempts to take viewers into the psyches of two French leaders and only partially succeeds.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher