When David Benedictus's tribute to Sir John Betjeman was first staged in 1976, its subject apparently commented, "Do you know, I didn't think I was that good!" After seeing this revival, I am afraid I still do not.
Betjeman's dyed-in-the-wool Englishness is of that sort routinely fawned over by certain American tourists as "quaint", and of course he traded on this quaintness relentlessly. Taken in large doses, however, his gentle irony and self-parody too readily subside into a double-bluff, as the affection in his observations of a particular class and period outweighs the always polite criticism. In truth, he was not so much the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, but of that portion of it south of a line from the Severn to the Wash. He would seem at first to be an ideal source for a light musical entertainment, but the cumulative effect of this production is rather like eating an entire Battenburg cake at one go.
Richard Syms's direction is appropriately gentle, only cutting loose (with the assistance of choreographer Elizabeth Blake) on a handful of the musical numbers, most notably "The Varsity Students Rag". Composer and pianist John Gould's music is thoughtful and fitting throughout, never more raucous than in the aforementioned rag or an odd burst of genteel early jazz. (I admit to secretly hankering after hearing some of Betjeman's six-line stanzas set to twelve-bar blues tunes, but that would have been just silly.)
Of the four performers, Nicholas Caunter supplies a stocky gravitas and Caroline Fitzgerald an air of wistfulness even to the mildly ridiculous gymkhana fervour of "Hunter Trials". Mary Lincoln turns her hand ably to a variety of moods, but the slight tang of deliberation in her performance is as nothing beside the frankly irksome Simon Butteriss who, even when aiming to be listening unobtrusively, too often displays the grinning rictus of a ballroom dancer. Butteriss's persistent camp undermines the show at several points; Syms's greatest error is to apportion to him both the "greatest hit" of this collection, "Slough", and the lion's share of its most serious poem, "The Arrest Of Oscar Wilde".
Betjemania has no great substance, but no pretensions to it. It rings a moderately novel change on the vogue for compilation musicals, and is at least infinitely more tasteful than the crass television commercial which has pressed Betjeman into posthumous service, with his candid regret, "I haven't had enough sex." Come to think of it, neither did we: Miss Joan Hunter Dunn was conspicuous by her absence.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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