A Marvellous Year for Plums, Chichester Festival Theatre, May 2012Posted on 18 May 2012
Following the debacle of the Suez crisis, Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister in January 1957, and he and his wife took ship to New Zealand. In this play a young Steward serves him tea, and Eden commends him on winning a boxing competition on board. They get into conversation, and when Eden asks the young man his name he gets the response, “Prescott, Sir”. The audience fell about.
But this clever play by Hugh Whitemore is no comedy. And nor was the meeting between Eden and Prescott mere poetic licence, just a light moment amidst a serious study of political events that went badly wrong in 1956. Yet the grave nature of what was going on is relieved by a love affair, along with brief dancing interludes to excellent musical arrangements from Matthew Scott. The clever set designs by Simon Higlett allow scenes to merge from one to the next as various characters are slowly swept in or out of view by a revolving ring on the stage, aided by subtle lighting from James Whiteside, and this production by Philip Franks has great forward momentum.
1956 was of course the year that Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, and this play shows Eden’s extraordinary mishandling of the crisis. Firm in resolve to take military action, then willing to back off under American pressure even when the French told him to sleep on it first. Eden interrupts the French PM at lunch when he is discussing the formation of the European Economic Community with the Germans, and acting as perfidious Albion didn’t help Britain’s case, to say nothing of the lack of moral clarity that surely affected our response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. What a year it was.
Anthony Andrews portrayed Eden as a decent man yet inadequate prime minister, with Abigail Cruttenden entirely convincing as Clarissa his devoted (second) wife. Nicholas Le Prevost was excellent as Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the opposition, who is carrying on an affair with the delectable Ann Fleming, elegantly played by Imogen Stubbs. Gaitskell accused Eden of being the captain of a sinking ship that he steered onto the rocks, but the real opposition close at hand was Anthony Nutting, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Fiercely played by Martin Hutson, we see him with David Yelland as an urbane Selwyn Lloyd, successor as Foreign Secretary to Eden himself, but described by Macmillan as “a middle class lawyer from Liverpool”.
These were the days when Class counted in a way that it doesn’t now, and three of the characters in this play were Old Etonians: Eden, Nutting, and Ian Fleming, while Gaitskell went to Winchester, and Selwyn Lloyd to Fettes. Fleming appears very much as a man of the world, attractively played by Simon Dutton, and he and his wife Ann are friends of the Edens. They are with them when the telephone call comes through saying the last troops have been withdrawn from Egypt. Eden spills his drink and lets out a yell like a wounded animal. This was a man who lost two brothers in the First World War and a son in the Second. His attempt to be a man of peace brought war, albeit briefly, and humiliation for both himself and Britain.
How would it have been different if they’d pushed on? Selwyn Lloyd muses on these things, and has no answers. But towards the end, Eden’s father, an irascible baronet whose occasional stage appearances lie in Eden’s imagination, has some cutting words to say about how to live your life, “Run straight … don’t play a double game …”. Eden did and he failed. We hear Rab Butler’s gibe that Eden was “half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, referring to his father and mother, and towards the end we even see them both dancing together.
This play is cleverly constructed, with video images adding a subtle background, and in exposing the British background to the tragedies of 1956 it is hugely effective. As to the title, you have to wait for the words of Selwyn Lloyd’s gardener, for whom international politics holds not the slightest interest. But if you are interested, this is a must-see that should surely go on to the West End.
Performances continue until June 2 — for details click here.