Review: Hemingway's Spanish Civil War Drama Fifth Column Gets A Patchy Revival

The Fifth Column, Southwark Playhouse ★★★☆☆

Lettie Mckie
By Lettie Mckie Last edited 22 months ago
Review: Hemingway's Spanish Civil War Drama Fifth Column Gets A Patchy Revival The Fifth Column, Southwark Playhouse 3

Southwark Playhouse's current production The Fifth Column is inspired, like his more famous novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Hemingway's experience as correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War.

Set in the same hotel that Hemingway lived in during his time there, it tells the story of a steamy, doomed love affair between Philip (Simon Darwen) and Dorothy (Alix Dunmore).

The heartbreaking tale of these two courageous but flawed protagonists is set against the backdrop of the bombardment of Madrid, which proceeded the occupation of the city by Franco's nationalist forces in January 1939.

Fifth Column is more than a little autobiographical — Hemingway met one of the great loves of his life in Madrid. Martha Gelhorn was one of the first female war correspondents and Dorothy has a similar occupation in the play. Philip is an undercover American cop fighting for the Republican resistance, but his huge libido and drinking habits give him more than a hint of Hemingway himself.

The strengths of this production lie in the impressive historical detail of the set (Alex Marker) and period costumes (Emily Stuart), right down to Dorothy's gorgeous clothes and the branded cans of bully meat the characters hoard illegally. Director Tricia Thorn has a knack for early 20th century drama, her productions recreating the look and feel of the era as attractively as any BBC drama.

It was a disappointment therefore, after Thorn's fantastic Finborough Theatre hit London Wall in 2013, that the acting in this production often lets it down.

Some of this can be put down to the tricky nature of Hemingway's impressionist prose, his taught sentences as slippery to deliver as complex Shakespearean verse.

The hardest scenes are those which focus on the resistance. Here Darwen, whose character dominates the dialogue throughout, fails to hold our attention, often rushing the delivery which makes it duller than it should be. Sadly, his co-star Michael Edwards as Philip's comrade Max fails to convince with a bad German accent.

Other members of the supporting cast do better. Stephen Ventura cuts a tragically comic character as the obsequious hotel manager and Sasha Frost sizzles as Philip's spurned Moorish lover.

Although it takes Dunmore a while to shake off a rather stilted beginning, both she and Darwen redeem themselves by the second act with irresistible chemistry which builds slowly from initial attraction to full grown passion, culminating in a devastating final scene.

Although lacklustre in parts, The Fifth Column has moments of heartbreaking emotional drama, especially between the lovers. As they each grapple with their own secret troubles the true depth of Hemingway's prose becomes clear.

The Fifth Column is on at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD until 16 April. Tickets £20/£16. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 02 April 2016