A MARVELLOUS YEAR FOR PLUMS
Chichester Festival Theatre
It's what Hugh Whitemore does best. Plays with words, often from letters or memoirs, using the magic of theatre to shed new light on figures from our recent history.
It's less that a lifetime since Hugh Gaitskell was leader of the Labour opposition, criticising the Tories for their eagerness to wage war in the Middle East, under the "delusion that we are still a world power". An unlikely lover for the attractive wife of Bond creator Ian Fleming, you might think. But this fascinating rummage around the Suez crisis convinces us that beneath the stiff shirts and the severe raincoats there beat hearts both vulnerable and passionate. As many of the matinée audience would recall, this was the way we handled emotions back then – quietly, with dignity and a stiff upper lip.
Nicholas LePrevost's rumpled Gaitskell was utterly believable, as was Anthony Andrews' ailing Eden, though his tired, hooded eyes were more reminiscent of his successor, Supermac.
The elegant womenfolk were Imogen Stubbs as Ann Fleming,
Abigail Cruttenden as the PM's loving Clarissa.
But for me, the acting honours went to Martin Hutson's principled, determined Nutting, who resigns rather than support his government's stance, and Simon Dutton's slightly louche, weary Fleming, neighbour of "Chinese Nell" [Coward] whose brittle, oblique dramatic style is echoed in several of the dialogues here.
It is a wordy piece, and lacks a clear dramatic arc, perhaps, though Eden's artist, atheist father is a potent device. Without Chichester's stylish production – the bombing and the ballroom dancing, the revolves and the Fifties frocks – it might flounder under the weight of history and gossip. Nonetheless, the parallels we are left to draw – Blair and Selwyn Lloyd [the excellent David Yelland] both went to Fettes – are salutary, and the seaboard encounter between the convalescent Eden and the pugilist Prescott is an improbable treat – but, like Gaitskell's love of ballroom dancing, not too good to be true at all, apparently ...