If the phrase “Chinese whispers” describes the way a tale becomes distorted in the retelling, here we have deception of a more deliberate kind – though having said that, it seems legitimate to wonder to what extent Edmund Backhouse (Mark Farrelly), the subject of this play and ancestor of one of its authors, at least partly believed the tales he spun. One volume of his memoirs is described in the programme as “fabrication and fantasy”, and even the other can only be said to contain “some historical accuracies that Backhouse has not hitherto been given credit for” (my emphasis).
Nevertheless, it’s these memoirs the show is based on. We follow Backhouse’s career (in the literal sense of an uncontrolled descent) from his being sent down from Oxford due to unpaid debts, coupled with being “the Oscar Wilde sort”, to his arrival in China, complete with a forged letter of introduction from Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister. This, along with an equally false claim to acquaintance with the dowager empress, secures him employment at the Peking office of the Times, run by the boorish George Morrison (Peter Hardy) who could hardly be more of a cheerleader for the British Empire if he were actually British himself, rather than Australian. Backhouse soon “discovers” a vitally important diary in the Forbidden City, though he takes the precaution of blowing on the ink before handing it over to his gullible colleague, John Bland (Steve Nallon), who unwisely agrees to co-author a contemporary history of China based largely on its contents.
Backhouse seems to crave prestige and money in equal measure, and before long, as his various schemes unravel, he takes on new and ever more disastrous commitments to get the ready cash to cover his existing liabilities. Robert Blyth’s essay in the programme sees in this a reflection of the “long Victorian twilight” as the British Empire dissolved, resorting to smoke, mirrors and bluster to project the illusion of “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven”.
Ian Lindsay’s production seems a little lost on the Greenwich Theatre stage, and might perhaps have sat more happily in a smaller theatre. That said, it’s great if undemanding fun, especially the audience interaction with Backhouse himself and his “factotum” (Owl Young). High marks also to Terry Gilliam-style video projections used to tell us about offstage events, the visitor so secret that they’re not allowed to depict him on stage, and it’s a nice touch to have Hugh Trevor-Roper appear at the end and denounce everything we’ve seen as a travesty (not like those Hitler diaries, eh Hugh?)