Sand in the Sandwiches
Theatre Royal Haymarket
31st May 2017
The world feels at times a rather gloomy place, with the great political spectre looming menacingly both here and abroad. Sand in the Sandwiches is a quite lovely antidote; a delightful depiction of a man who nurtured an eternal summer in his heart.
Sand in the Sandwiches begins on a wistfully cheerful note, as Sir John Betjeman (Edward Fox) sits in a comfortable wicker chair, and recites ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’. It’s a didactic and slightly absurd poem, gorgeously melodic, and delivered with a broad, boyish smile. This tone is maintained throughout, as Betjeman reflects on his childhood, being sent down from Oxford, an unsuccessful stint as a games master, and the first writing jobs which laid the foundations for his poetic career. This is interspersed with anecdotes and readings of his work, offering a fascinating, hilarious and often poignant insight into the life and career of one of the country’s best loved poets.
Fox is a faultless Betjeman, possessing at once expert comic timing, a joyful disposition, and a subtle fragility. This latter trait is evidenced not just in his self-deprecating manner, but in his deeply moving speeches about his perpetually disappointed father, from which their shaky bond still shone through. He makes a wonderful companion, a genial, grandfatherly type whose twinkly reminiscences about C.S.Lewis (they did not get on) and Winston Churchill (worth the price of admission in itself) will have you roaring with laughter, and reflecting longingly on a bygone age. Most impressive of all is the way in which Fox captures the poet’s humility, the sense of a man who truly believed his success to be a product of luck, one who never knew if a poem was good until it was finished.
A huge amount of credit must go to the author, Hugh Whitemore. Sand in the Sandwiches is not only beautifully plotted, but much like Betjeman’s poems, weaves silliness and sadness into proceedings, in a way that leaves you reflecting on life’s richness. The bawdy ‘Invasion Exercise on the Poultry Farm’ gives way to Betjeman’s first glimpse of the wispy and beguiling Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, his future mistress, before settling on his poem ‘Guilt’, in which he explains that “I hadn’t hope, I hadn’t faith/I live two lives and sometimes three”. I left the theatre happily pondering Betjeman’s multi-faceted and well-lived life, and felt privileged to have spent a couple of hours in his company.
Sand in the Sandwiches is absolutely delightful, a one man play in which Sir John Betjeman – a remarkable performance by Edward Fox – looks back on his life and career via a series of poems and anecdotes. In a frequently gloomy world, this is guaranteed to lift your spirits.