“Once trust is lost, it’s gone for ever… friendship, marriage, government … “ It is obliging of Hugh Whitemore to spell out in the final scene what his latest play is all about, since without that remark I would have been at a loss to draw its several threads together. Even as it is, I doubt that that single truistical line can do so effectively.
The principal strand chronicles the Suez crisis of 1956, when Anthony Eden’s British government conspired with the French in an ill-fated invasion to seize back the newly nationalised Suez Canal from Col Nasser’s Egypt. We see Eden’s high-strung fury, the complaisance of foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd in the invasion scheme, and his junior minister Anthony Nutting’s moral reservations. But there’s more. The Edens were close friends of author Ian Fleming and his wife Ann; after Eden’s nervous breakdown at the end of that year, he convalesced at Fleming’s Jamaican villa Goldeneye. Meanwhile, Ann was conducting an affair with the leader of the Labour opposition Hugh Gaitskell.
But there’s more still: flashback cameos from Eden’s Edwardian baronet (and martinet) father; a clutch of references to other events of 1956, from the Hungarian uprising to the premiere of Look Back in Anger (and, in passing, the year’s plum harvest); a few anachronisms, and a self-satisfied gag made of the bizarre but true coincidence that one of the stewards on a cruise Eden took in 1957 was a young John Prescott, later Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister. That’s a lot for two and a half hours. There’s probably even more, but I already feel like the schoolboy in the Gary Larson cartoon, pleading, “May I be excused? My brain is full.”
Philip Franks’ production is attentive as always, with fluid scene changes that successfully counteract the bittiness of the structure. A quality cast turn in diligent performances: Anthony Andrews and Abigail Cruttenden as the Edens, Simon Dutton and Imogen Stubbs as the Flemings, Nicholas le Prevost as Gaitskell, David Yelland as Lloyd. Some interesting ideas are thrown up about the relationship between events of that time and/or their echoes today – but no sooner does a thought arise than it flashes off again. Eden’s successor Harold Macmillan remarked that a politician’s biggest problem was “Events, dear boy, events”; Whitemore seems to have found that they may also be a dramatist’s.