SPIES, lies and enough political intrigue to fill a James Bond novel, Hugh Whitemore’s new drama A Marvellous Year For Plums, does its best to talk up the reputation of arguably one of Britain’s worse prime ministers of the 20th century.
Anthony Eden’s handling of the Suez Crisis in the 1950s was considered a monumental blunder from which his health and career never recovered.
Whitemore’s interesting title, so it is said in the play, comes from a conversation Tory minister Selwyn Lloyd had years later with one of his gardeners.
Trying to discuss the conflict with him proved fruitless and the only thing of note that the labourer could recollect from 1956 was not that Eden ordered the country into Egypt to protect our oil interests but that it was a great year for growing fruit.
And that’s the problem. Anyone under the age of 50 would be compelled to ask: “Crisis? What crisis?” Shamefully, I doubt whether it’s on any school curriculum and my working knowledge of the subject was sketchy to say the least.
So the audience at the Chichester Festival Theatre enjoying this engrossing world premiere of political shenanigans must listen to a quick run-through of the key players and points of historical interest before really getting down to the story. The exposition can, if you’re not paying close attention, make one giddy. Too many historical facts, late at night, are never a great idea.
Anthony Andrews makes a very earnest and well-meaning Eden. I passed him in the street a few hours before the performance and he really looked as though he had the nation’s troubles on his shoulders. Whitemore has done a splendid job of putting a spin on someone who really wasn’t terribly good at leading the country – but at least Andrews gives us an insight into the man behind the politician.
The personal lives of the leading characters make for a racy back story . Labour politician Hugh Gaitskill (Nicholas le Prevost sporting a terrible, but necessary, wig) has an affair with serial adulterer Ann Fleming, wife of Ian Fleming (who also had a woman stashed in his Jamaican hideaway, Goldeneye) while Lloyd’s marriage collapses and Eden is haunted by his domineering dead father.
Simon Dutton’s exuberant Fleming deserved his own production. The actor’s booming voice and elegance perfectly captured the larger-than-life character of the author and sometime spy.
At one point the Flemings are discussing with the Edens what made a good hero and villain. Eden dismisses Hitler as “more buffoon than villain” while Mussolini was a natural villain because he had “terrible table manners and bad breath”.
One of the benefits of enjoying a 1950s-set production was the beautiful diction spoken by all the characters, from the always watchable David Yelland, as Lloyd, to Imogen Stubbs as Ann, Andrews, Le Prevost and Abigail Cruttenden as Clarissa Eden.
Martin Hutson, provided passionate support as Anthony Nutting, who appeared to be the only politician with a conscience, while the audience enjoyed a cameo from Daniel Easton as a ship’s steward called Prescott (who, one day, wanted a career in politics!)
The whole business of Suez is couched in the jargon of the time. Everything is ghastly or beastly which doesn’t do justice to the terrible decisions that were made and the lives that were lost in the name of oil. Nothing changes.
A Marvellous Year For Plums runs, in rep, until June 2. For tickets call the box office 01243 781312 or go online www.cft.org.uk.