Sand in the Sandwiches is a one-man play based on the life and poetry of Poet Laureate John Betjeman.
Hugh Whitemore's play takes us gently through parts of Betjeman's life, though the line between narration and poetry is not clear – a tale about his childhood, for instance, gradually becomes the poem Trebetherick, the place in Cornwall where the Betjeman family went on holiday when John was a boy and which has given the play its title. This is not a biography, just a sketched outline of parts of his life told through poetry and humour. Equally important are Betjeman's views on such matters as the English countryside and English architecture. 'Come gentle bombs and fall on Slough' is perhaps the best known poem but Whitemore puts a different poem in Betjeman's mouth – the town clerk who wants to raze the old towns and build concrete blocks of flats. Behind the humour of these poems is a passion for his country. The programme notes tell us that Betjeman was the first secretary to the Oxford Preservation Trust and, although his many interests meant he could not put in the time that was needed, his energy and forthrightness gave the Trust a firm foundation. Other interests included churches – both the buildings and the religion. As an Anglican, he talks of his sadness when his wife converted to Catholicism.
The actor playing John Betjeman is Edward Fox. One can only use superlatives for his performance. For nigh on two hours he held us spellbound; he made us laugh; he made us pensive: we felt the extraordinary humanity of Betjeman, which is so apparent in his poetry. At the end Fox made a well-earned tribute to the author: equal praise must go to the actor who brought Betjeman alive for us.
John Betjeman's obituary called him 'whimsical, imprudent, shrewd, humorous, disarming'. One of his most famous poems, A Subaltern's Love Song, combines all of these, from the whimsical description of England ('mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells') to the funny ending ('We sat in the car park till twenty to one / And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn').
Betjeman described himself modestly as a poet and a hack: certainly he had to make a living by writing film reviews and editing journals. His love, though, from childhood had always been poetry. In this play he talks with modesty about his poetry as 'putting words in order'. His work is much more than that though and I cannot recommend this play and performance strongly enough. Make time this week to see it.
It was all the more rewarding for that.