One national treasure stars as another in this production of Hugh Whitemore's play Sand in the Sandwiches. Edward Fox, one of the Fox acting dynasty and known for a long and remarkable career on stage and screen, plays John Betjeman, erstwhile poet laureate, protector of Victorian architecture and celebrator of all things quintessentially English.
It's hard to know which treasure to come to see most. If you're a hardcore Betjeman fan, you'll likely enjoy Whitemore's play, which is a short, sweet, poignant homage to the poet, infused with his work and words. The one-man show has Betjeman pondering over various moments in his life – his days at Marlborough College, his early love of the work of poet Lord Alfred Douglas (who took up corresponding with the young Betjeman after a rather sinister, if predictable, request for a photo), his marriage and his subsequent affair with Lady Cavendish.
But if you like Edward Fox, you'll come to see the show for him. Fox presents something of his own take on Betjeman – he is rather more dashing than Betjeman ever was and the poet's clipped, clear accent becomes even posher in Fox's mouth. Still, Fox commands the full stage at the Haymarket for almost two hours on his own, moving rarely, only to shuffle from one chair to another. The 80 year-old actor is looking a little frail, but he builds this into his portrait of Betjeman, so that the edges around them both blur.
Whitemore's play meanders through some of Betjeman's lovely phrases and warming insights while also offering some of his wicked moments of humour too. Not least the moment when Betjeman's father has to explain what being gay is, or when - shock horror - he wears an elasticated bow tie to dinner at the Savoy, just to irritate his future mother-in-law. It is these cheeky moments which bring alive the heart of the man. Sadly, the poems feel a little lost within these biographical moments - occasionally it's hard to grasp them to their full.
If you're not a fan of either national treasures, however, you will find the show slow. Really, it would work best as a radio play and though Simon Slater's music and Howard Harrison's lighting does much to evoke a live atmosphere, it is too slight a piece to stand on its own.
Still, Fox is a mesmerising presence, guffawing wickedly through Betjeman's more humorous anecdotes, making sure, all the while, the audience is there with him too.