Sand in the Sandwiches Brings Betjeman’s Poetry to the Stage
“I thought of the many people at school with me who were now knights and politicians. I wanted to cry.”
Sentimentality begins Hugh Whitmore’s play chronicling the life and works of John Betjeman, who himself was the first Knight Bachelor ever to become Poet Laureate. Portrayed by Oscar and BAFTA award winning actor Edward Fox, the play charters Betjeman’s life from childhood, through tangled relationships and to the celebration of old age.
A soft, reflective piano sequence opens the play as the stage lights come on, lighting up the minimalistic, autumn-strewn garden set, designed by Fotini Dimou. In strides Edward Fox in a cream coloured suit and hat (Edwardian style), he sits down on one of the chairs and begins reviewing Betjeman’s life in what he a calls “a magnifying mist of self-pity”. He takes us back to the poet’s childhood, lingering on holiday visits to Trebetherick in Cornwall and correspondences with the poet Alfred Douglas, before moving on to his more wild days as an underachieving undergraduate where he is taught by C. S. Lewis and befriends W. H. Auden.
It becomes clear early on that the show is not as much a play as a stream of consciousness. Rather than reciting Betjeman’s beautiful, humorous poems in their entirety, they are woven into the anecdotes as poetic fragments. Although this fittingly turns Betjeman’s life into one long biographical poem, some of the magic of his work is lost. For anyone who, like me, is unfamiliar with his poems, following the play becomes a strain, and a lot of the poetic fragments (of which, as I found out later, there are loads), pass by unnoticed. Fox’s trawling, drawn out voice, although light and easy to follow part of the time, unfortunately sucks the life out of the poems.
It was very helpful to have some of the poems that were quoted numerous times included in the program. “Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea/Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet”, perhaps the iconic Betjeman phrase from the poem “Trebetherick,” returned as a thematic echo throughout the play. Other short phrases that caused a lot of raucous laughter are equally memorable, one example being Betjeman’s single contribution to erotic poetry, co-written with Auden and MacNiece: “Sometimes I think that I should like/To be the saddle on a bike”.
It was also interesting how the play characterized both sides of the poet. Fox delved into the double life Betjeman lived with his wife Penelope on one hand, and his mistress “Feebles”, on the other. Next, the audience is moved to the stalled tube train where Betjeman sits, while just a few miles away his father dies at work. In the next instant we are back in the poet’s professional life; we learn that he writes over 1,000 book reviews for the Daily Telegraph between 1951-1959, and that his wife severely disapproves of his television career. Finally, we return to garden, where the aging Betjeman wistfully asks himself: “What comes next?” before exiting the stage.
It is the lightheartedness of the play, reflecting the mind of a poet who never took himself too seriously, that makes it enjoyable. Homage must be paid to Fox for reciting well over 1.5 hours of continuous script, and to Whitmore for, despite the monotony, capturing the essence of Betjeman’s entire life and career, in just under 2 hours. If nothing else, it inspires you to revisit the poetry that in many ways epitomizes the land and spirit of England.
Sand in the Sandwiches is currently showing at Salisbury Playhouse (21st-23rd Nov) and will finish at the Folkestone Book Festival on the 24th Nov, however this show is already sold out! Tickets can be found here: http://www.sandinthesandwiches.com/tickets