Sunday, 17 October 2021

REVIEW: A Splinter of Ice at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Growing up in the 1970s offers a smorgasbord of memories; tank tops, glam-rock and the three day week all jostle for attention. But the Cold War always loomed large, with the US and Soviet Union flexing their muscles as Britain’s global influence shrunk by the very day. Grim tales of red buttons and nuclear fallout shelters fed the paranoia. Happily the 1980s brought glasnost and perestroika; Michail Gorbachev and a birthmark that looked like the hammer and sickle. Spitting Image would have its wicked way but things were getting better. This engrossing play by Ben Brown picks up in Moscow and imagines a meeting between Graham Greene and Kim Philby. The former, a legendary novelist and latter an MI6 man who turned Soviet spy.

The Jermyn Street Theatre has a great sense of spatial awareness and makes the most of a compact performance area. The set is stocked with symbols and mementoes of a Cold War existence. A chess set with a game in progress, framed medals and a mural depicting the Moscow skyline. It's a brilliantly simple method of setting the mood and atmosphere. Graham Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) saunters onto set much like one of his greatest creations Harry Lime. He is in Moscow ostensibly to attend a peace conference. But business and pleasure soon become intertwined as he calls on former colleague Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer).

They both worked for MI6, but Philby later defected and was part of the same spy ring that included Guy Burgess and Donald McLean. A spy ring that systematically fed intelligence to the Soviets. Two old friends raise a glass to old times and muse how their lives have turned in different directions. Philby's wife Rufa (Karen Ascoe) fusses over the pair as they catch up. Greene gently turns inquisitor as he tries to understand Philby's motivation. Why did he betray his country in the way he did?

The play is brilliantly conceived and written; it benefits from a superlative cast who give the characters naturalistic poise. However real and gripping the narrative is the play doesn't feel that contemporary. Some may argue the Cold War has never gone away but only changed persona. Even so it's unlikely to mean much to anyone under the age of 50; and is the only tangible weakness in the play’s construction and delivery. Younger theatre goers would be well advised to read around the subject before attending; and ensure they get full value from this otherwise excellent play.

Review by Brian Penn

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: D10 | Price of Ticket: £31/£27 concessions
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