Staging the biography of one of Britain’s most popular poets from the 20th century is quite a challenge, especially when the enactment is as a solo performance. Casting Edward Fox as the well-known Poet Laureate John Betjeman was clearly the right choice. The play Sand in the Sandwiches, written by Hugh Whitemore and directed by Gareth Armstrong, will be in London’s West End Theatre Royal Haymarket until Saturday June 3.
On a simple stage, resembling a courtyard garden, Edward Fox as John Betjeman welcomes the audience with one of his well-known verses. The small garden table surrounded by autumn leaves with a bottle of white wine on it creates an atmosphere of a genial assembly of friends sharing anecdotes of a past life. Betjeman wallows in childhood memories of pre-imperial war London, family vacations in Cornwall and his early school years in Highgate, where he was taught by T. S. Eliot and discovered his love for poetry and literature. Although not successful as a student, he describes his years in Oxford in colourful detail and tells stories about his first marriage with Penelope Chetwode, their children, as well as his affair with the twenty years-younger Elizabeth Cavendish. Working as a film critic and editor for the Architectural Review, he earns a living while his first collections of poems were published in the 1930s. Betjeman’s love for pre-war London and his campaigning against a crude modernisation of the capital, emphasised in the beginning of the second act, is told in an entertaining way, which also evokes a touch of nostalgia.
The author, Hugh Whitemore, follows the poet’s biography in a chronological way and embeds it within Betjeman’s literary work. Interweaving the ninety minute long monologue with Betjeman’s poetry keeps you wondering sometimes where the verse ends and the story begins. A distinct, but also predictable structure of the play is mirrored in the mise-en-scene, which clearly relies on Edward Fox’s performance. Musical interludes and changes in lighting from a warm yellow to a rather cold blue filter mark the only scenic intermezzi during the performance. In the end, when Parkinson-suffering Betjeman gradually dies from a series of strokes, Fox sits in his chair with the empty bottle of wine, asking the audience: “What’s coming next?”
The evening promises to cover the whole spectrum of Betjeman’s life from the anxiety of boyhood to the celebrity of old age, which is clearly fulfilled thanks to Foxe’s fine acting. the The audience not only hangs on Fox’s lips but also interacts with his anecdotes, regrets and emotional confessions. Nevertheless, the humorous but also nostalgic manner of the play only scratches the surface of a life that stretched from the long nineteenth century to post-war England. The focus on acting therefore turns the intended celebration of John Betjeman into a well-earned celebration of Edward Fox’s presence, which is acknowledged with an overwhelming standing ovation.