It is all too rare nowadays to see a play of ideas staged in the West End; Stephen Churchett's first full-length work, built upon a fictitious encounter between Clement Attlee and Tom Driberg at the Potsdam conference of 1945, offers lengthy exchanges concerning pragmatic versus passionate socialism. Tom And Clem is, however, a mixed bag of a play; indeed, it could scarcely be more mixed if the cast of characters included a plate-spinner.
A climate of grudging Realpolitik at Potsdam determined the shape of Europe for the next 45 years. Churchett, however, alludes to this only in reported accounts of Ernest Bevin's untranslatably demotic conversations; instead, the politicking centres upon the offer of a Russian intelligence officer to defect. A generous dollop of farce is added, to the extent that on Attlee's first entrance the flamboyantly gay journalist-M.P. Driberg is hidden beneath a green baize tablecloth attempting to fellate the young Russian in question. Single entendres are scattered throughout the play, including an almost inevitable pun upon Attlee's mislaid pipe tobacco: "Lost my shag," he remarks, to an unsurprisingly louche rejoinder from Driberg.
Moreover, the element of parable is not lost on the audience as disputation proceeds about the way forward for a Labour government at a political watershed – lines such as "If we've got to have Tories, they ought at least to be gentlemen" were met with approving press-night applause. One could not help wondering, though, where the Dribergs are amid today's market-researched parliamentary scene, in terms either of political or personal fire.
Michael Gambon plays the 40-year-old Driberg with expansive bonhomie, relishing his risqué exuberance yet skilfully transforming the mood when phoning through copy about his visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp (reproduced verbatim from Driberg's Reynolds News report). Alec McCowen takes a more muted enjoyment in the precise, elliptical speech of Attlee, a man so self-effacing that he refers to Churchill as "the Prime Minister", explaining, "I can't quite get out of the habit." Daniel de la Falaise and Sarah Woodward as, respectively, Soviet and British translators-cum-spooks, ably broaden the canvas as far as the script permits them. Rob Howell's set provides the first political emblem of the evening, as a portrait of Attlee is hung to replace that of Churchill, and the last, as Driberg "augments" it.
However, the play's raison d'être is a pair of duologues between Tom and Clem, whose portentousness director Richard Wilson rashly chooses to point up: for the first, the antagonists both move downstage centre, facing out to the audience; the second takes place behind the enormous ceremonial table, assuming an air of formal debate rather than drama. Wilson proves unable to pace the awkward blend of grand politics, human politics and low farce, with the result that proceedings sometimes drag when they particularly need to be enlivened, and even when they ought to be cantering along of their own accord. Tom And Clem is a West End curio surfing on the wave of an historical moment, and ultimately offers more to big-name scalp-hunters than to dinner-table debaters.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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