The Old Country @ Trafalgar Studios, London

cast list
Timothy West
Jean Marsh
Rebecca Charles
Tim Delap
Susan Tracy
Simon Williams

directed by
Stephen Unwin

Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, soon to begin a limited run on Broadway, is rightly regarded as one of the theatrical highlights of the last couple of years. But though his 1977 play The Old Country – revived now by English Touring Theatre – features the same preoccupation with Englishness, the writing is sadly not in the same league and the acting only magnifies these weaknesses.

The set – a ramshackle porch, strewn with books and plants and gardening tools – gives every impression of representing a traditional English home. And initially it appears as if this is the case; only gradually does it become apparent that this in actual fact a house in Russia and that Hilary (played by Timothy West) and his wife Bron (played by Jean Marsh) have been in exile for many years because Hilary handed over government intelligence.

The play hinges on a social visit by Hilary’s sister Veronica (Susan Tracy) and his newly knighted brother-in-law Duff (Simon Williams), who the couple have not seen in many years. Unfortunately that’s basically it when it comes to plot; Bennett instead uses the situation and characters to dissect the notion of what it is to be English.

So we have Duff, who superficially appears to be the quintessential upper class intellectual, working on various government committees, but in reality he uses this to hide his homosexuality. And then there’s Hilary, pining for England that no longer exists and perhaps never did.

An exploration of the politics of why people defect would have been fascinating, but Bennett assiduously avoids this. Hilary’s reasons for why he defected are incredibly flimsy and the ironies implicit in his new situation – working for the Russian government, but despite the change of location and political system, pretty much continuing to do the same job – are never examined or discussed.

The Old Country contains the seeds of an interesting play but there is very little evidence of the killer Bennett instinct for the human condition. Matters aren’t helped by a cast who seem to be sleep-walking through their roles. Timothy West never really convinces as Hilary and, in the production I saw, he continually tripped over his lines.

Jean Marsh just seemed bored for a lot of the time, although in fairness Bennett gives her character very little to do. Susan Tracy and Simon Williams are good comic performers but often seemed to be acting in a different play altogether.

As this is Alan Bennett the language is of course frequently delightful, but that does not make up for a plot that hardly seems to exist at all. Time has not been kind to this play, that is true, but much more could have been made of it. In director Stephen Unwin’s hands the piece falters to the point where it’s difficult to grasp why it was ever thought worthy of a West End transfer.

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