Top-Level Meeting

By Morley, Sheridan | The Spectator, April 19, 1997 | Go to article overview

Top-Level Meeting


Morley, Sheridan, The Spectator


Tom and Clem (Aldwych)

The Critics - Up For Review (Battersea Arts Centre)

Marlene (Lyric)

Michael Gambon is not only one of the greatest actors in the land but one of the most fortunate; a couple of seasons ago he starred on both sides of the Atlantic in David Hare's Skylight, arguably the best relationship play of the Nineties, and he is now at the Aldwych in another stunningly brilliant new script, this one from a firsttime dramatist.

Stephen Churchett's Tom and Clem is the best original drama in town; it imagines a meeting at the Potsdam Conference of July 1945 between Clement Attlee, the newly elected Labour prime minister, and Tom Driberg the gay, louche, renegade MP and journalist.

On one level this is, therefore, the old Peter Shaffer debate between the man of icy principles and his poetic-romantic alter ego, and Gambon is here matched line for line by an equally brilliant Alec McCowen as a remarkably lookalike Attlee. But Tom and Clem is about much more than their differences; it is a play about the birth (and death) of post-war British socialism, about gay rights, about the coming of the Hbomb and, topically enough, about Britain trying to find its way out of a long period of Tory rule.

A subplot featuring Sarah Woodward and Daniel de la Falaise about Anglo-Soviet espionage is perhaps less successful, but one can forgive a lot more than that of a drama about compromise and conscience, socialism and sex, ideas and ideals in constant conflict; McCowen and Gambon are a stunning double-act, each often given five-minute speeches with which to mesmerise first each other and then us. Next time anyone tells you the West End no longer has thoughtful state-of-the-nation plays past or present, send them speedily to this one; not that there's really any danger of missing it - Tom and Clem, a wonderfully comic, reflective and touching history of the roots of modern Britain, will, if there is any justice, be around here and Broadway for many, many months to come.

I have been somewhat bemused at the amount of publicity generated by the Battersea Arts Centre's invitation to four of my London drama critic colleagues to direct plays in the current Up For Review season. That this was largely a publicity gimmick could be gathered from a somewhat tasteless, though widely reproduced, mug shot of the four of them holding prison-parole boards as if about to be released from jail. But are we really to believe that this is some sort of revolutionary crossover? A century ago Harley Granville Barker and Bernard Shaw were drama critics running the Royal Court Theatre; since then many of us journalists have worked backstage and on stage, and there are now innumerable actors, directors and dramatists writing in newspapers on a regular basis; indeed the best of the current election columns comes from David Hare.

So why have the rest of the media suddenly decided that some separation-ofpowers act has been mysteriously and even dangerously breached? Just possibly they were intrigued by BAC's promise to have the critics' shows reviewed by those usually on the receiving end of their notices. As usual, this proved a damp squid; the old bash-the-critics warriors Berkoff and Bogdanov declined to play ball, and those who did were either patronising or icily polite to critics who will soon once again be reviewing them.

The two productions I have thus far seen in the Battersea season are certainly characteristic of their directors: Michael Billington, who has already staged an RSC play, comes up with a double bill of Strindberg's The Stronger and Pinter's The Lover in which, as Pinter's authorised biographer, he has seen some remarkable parallels: the titles are indeed interchangeable, and both plays are about marital power games running out of control. …

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