The Patriotic Traitor (Park Theatre)

Laurence Fox and Tom Conti star in Jonathan Lynn’s new play

Jonathan Lynn‘s new play teeters precariously between a straight-down-the-line historical drama and a wry comedy. It’s so unbalanced that neither of its two leads know quite what to do with it.

Laurence Fox, of Lewis fame, is a straight-backed Charles de Gaulle while Tom Conti is the gentler old duffer Philippe Pétain. Lynn – who co-wrote Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister – focuses on the relationship between these real-life historical figures, who strike up an unlikely friendship while Pétain is teaching at the military academy where de Gaulle is studying. They couldn’t be more different; the aristocratic de Gaulle is devoid of humour and unable to lie, but he is understood by the more human, low-born Pétain. Theirs is a remarkable story, which tells of two different military careers, first Pétain’s whose military nous saves France in WWI but who serves the country on a plate to the Nazis in WWII. The ambitious and intelligent de Gaulle rises through the ranks and opposes his old friend’s actions during WWII. In 1945 de Gaulle places Pétain on trial for treason.

These are entirely fictional encounters imagined by Lynn, including a startlingly long scene where the two of them get totally sloshed. The drunkenness is OTT: Conti wobbles about the stage, while Fox slumps in a chair and slurs his words. It’s funny, yes, but it goes on for a very long time and is a bizarre break in Lynn’s play for no reason other than the laughs.

The play’s structure is too staccato; too many scenes with too many clunky changes. The night I saw it, Conti struggled with his words and though he plays both the old Pétain (90-odd) and the younger Pétain (50-odd) the differences between them are hard to spot. He’s a slightly doddery militia man throughout.

Fox fares better, but, in the first half at least, his character barely develops. In the second half, which has longer scenes and focuses on the latter half of their relationship, Fox is good and the layers to his de Gaulle begin to show through. It’s a dramatic story, but we aren’t invested in the characters enough. The four other members of the cast take turns with several other roles each, but are generally uneven.

All too often it feels as though Lynn can’t quite relinquish the laughs. The two characters are figures of fun, which undermines the drama and leaves us feeling, frankly, a little confused.

The Patriotic Traitor runs at the Park Theatre until 19 March.