We love Alan Bennett; we think he's a bit of a national treasure. We love his unapologetic Englishness, his love of language, and his ability to create great understated drama. We cheered when he won his fifth Olivier award for The History Boys in 2004, and were 'quite excited' when we heard that a film version of the same play was due for release 'shortly'.
But last night's production of The Old Country at the Richmond theatre left us feeling a bit flat. Maybe we were having a less-than-brilliant Tuesday evening, grey-matter-wise, but the exact reason why this study of exiled British spies, banished to the then Soviet Union, pining for Blighty had been revived at all sort of passed us by.
Sure, it's a really good piece of writing, and the performances on the whole are excellent, but watching a play written before we were born (1977) about a time untouched by our history syllabuses (the Cold War), where characters feel homesick for things we've never seen before (Lyons' tea shops), left us feeling a little adrift in something of a reference-free no man's land. But we were among the youngest members of the audience, so maybe it just wasn't aimed at us.
In his programme notes, dearest Alan tells us that it suits governments to make treachery (or betrayal) 'the crime of crimes', but that concealing information from one's own people is also a crime 'that is still going on.' True, but watching the 65-year-old Hilary and his wife and friends banter about the Foreign Office, guilt, irony and elm trees seemed so far removed from today's world, any political edge the writing may have wielded was smoothed by a combination of confusion and out-dated nostalgia.
Nevertheless, the performances are excellent, and Timothy West as Hilary (pictured) is a thrill to watch. We love it when an actor you seen so many times you feel you know them still has you utterly convinced. (Pub Quiz Note: He's married to Prunella 'Basil?!' Scales, and daddy to Sam West, who's that one from so many costume dramas, and Dr Frankenstein in Van Helsing.) Simon Williams seems weaker in the shadow of West's superb acting, but he’s still thoroughly dislikeable, although somewhat throaty(?) as Duff, the relative from back home, forcing Hilary to reassess his exile.
The women are also great. Susan Tracy is really enjoyable as Veronica, and Rebecca Charles plays Olga as fantastically outré, clashing in language, culture, age and even dress in her white ankle socks, with the venerable Hilary.
The deliciously understated costumes are spot-on (bar the young Eric's decidedly 2006 hairstyle), and the set’s lovely too. As a study of ageing relationships, the clash between generations, and growing old, it remains timeless; it’s just some of the brilliantly-acted arrow-sharp sentiments missed the mark they presumably hit in the seventies as the play’s performed again in 2006.
If you like your theatre thought-provoking, your word-play wise and witty, your put-downs pithy but polite, and are looking for a great night out to please the parents, we recommend this. It hits the West End later this year too.
Best joke of the evening went along these lines: 'if there were an alcoholic called Johnnie Walker, he could start an association called alcoholics eponymous. Find two of them with the same name, and you could call it alcoholics synonymous...
The Old Country by Alan Bennett runs at the Richmond Theatre until 11 March. Tue-Sat 19:45, Mats Wed & Sat 14:30. Tickets: £12-£24. Photograph of Timothy West by Stephen Vaughan.