English Touring Theatre's revival of Alan Bennett's 1977 play joins their production of Hamlet in the West End after a regional tour. As a forerunner of his TV dramas An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, The Old Country focuses on an upper-middle-class spy in order to examine themes of betrayal, secrecy, exile and, above all, the nature of Englishness.
As one would expect from one our foremost humorists, there are plenty of witty one-liners and wry observations; but with no real suspense or tension it falls short on dramatic impetus.
The opening nicely illustrates the idea of appearances being deceptive. We see an elderly English couple relaxing in what seems to be their retirement house in the country - only later do we learn that ex-Foreign Office civil servant Hilary has fled to the Soviet Union with his wife Bron after being warned that his spying activities were about to be exposed.
In this 'little England' Hilary surrounds himself with old books, listens to Elgar and reads The Times, while the long-suffering Bron has to put up with his continual ironic commentary. In customary English fashion, they try to ignore their neighbours, Eric (an ex-working-class naval clerk from Portsmouth) and his Jewish wife Olga, who are also traitors. But when Hilary's sister Veronica and her recently knighted husband Duff come to visit, Hilary is forced to reconsider his relationship with 'the old country'.
John Gunter's beautifully detailed design, with wooden balcony and rustic furniture, provides the perfect setting for Bennett's gently discursive comedy of manners. There are many good jokes poking fun at English characteristics of class snobbery and social embarrassment, and it is suggested that Hilary's treachery is not so much due to political principle as the ultimate form of ironic detachment. But director Stephen Unwin is unable to inject any urgency into this one-paced desultory conversation piece where, considering the subject-matter, there is remarkably little dramatic conflict.
After an uncertain start, Timothy West grows in assurance as Hilary, delivering acerbically funny lines with aplomb, and suggesting that his rigid loyalty to traditional English culture is a form of self-deception. Jean Marsh makes a sympathetic Bron, Susan Tracy is an amusingly snobbish Veronica and Simon Williams is highly entertaining as the flamboyant culture vulture Duff, who, it turns out, leads a double life of his own.
- Neil Dowden