Sand in the Sandwiches is the perfect show for those who feel the West End should be an intellectual funfair. It sets out to amuse, surprise, divert, uplift and nothing more. Edward Fox’s biographical portrait of John Betjeman has a smattering of his most famous poems ingeniously woven into the narrative. Fox knows his stuff. His shrill, elongated upper-middle-class accent is 99 per cent impersonation and 1 per cent exaggeration. He reminds us that when Betjeman said ‘Edwardian’ he rhymed the second syllable with card, not sword.
From early boyhood Betjeman knew that poetry would be his trade. Aged 14, he read the sonnets of Oscar Wilde’s chum, Bosie, and judged them superior to Shakespeare’s. He sent the ageing poet an admiring letter. ‘To my surprise, I got a reply, requesting a photograph.’ (Fox gets a big laugh on ‘requesting a photograph’.) Betjeman’s exchange of messages with Bosie was discovered by his horrified father, who decreed that they should ‘go for a walk’. (Big laugh on ‘go for a walk’.) Bosie, young Betjeman was informed, could never be a suitable pen pal. ‘He’s a bugger. Do you know what that is? Two men work themselves up into such a state of mutual admiration that one of them shoves his piss-pipe up the other’s arse. What do you think of that?’ Quite a lot, as it happened. Betjeman enjoyed a few homosexual dalliances at Oxford, where he and Auden enjoyed unearthing homoerotic poetry by ‘fin-de-siècle pederasts’. Later Betjeman married the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode. The old boy warmed to his son-in-law but he was concerned that the right note should be struck within the family circle. ‘You can’t call me “father” as I’m not your father. “Sir” is too formal. “Philip” is too informal. You’d better call me field marshal.’
By contrast with Edward Fox’s glorious evening, the Royal Court’s latest show, Killology, is a Very Important Drama. It asks whether brutality in art tends to catalyse or to neutralise violent urges in spectators. The playwright, Gary Owen, offers us three versions of damaged masculinity. All are convincingly written and Owen has a knack for writing violent scenes whose uncertain development engages the attention.
Davey is a bullied teen. His father, Alan, is a morose plumber. Paul is an angry yuppie whose cyber-game, Killology, has earned him millions. But it takes an hour before we realise how these three chaps are related. Davey is kidnapped and tortured by sadists claiming Killology as their inspiration. In revenge, Alan kidnaps Paul and prepares to inflict on him Killology’s nastiest depravities. This is a promising storyline and it might make a good film but the movie version would skip over the long preamble involving a dog, Maisie, given to Davey as a present by his dad. Maisie falls foul of a local gang who set their massive pit bull on her. Davey is forced to beg the gang leader to dispatch a half-dead Maisie with a flick-knife. The details of this slaying are gratuitously lurid. And the plotting doesn’t quite add up. Davey is too scared to inform his mum or the cops about Maisie’s execution but a nice teacher, Mrs Stroud, has learned about the crime. How? And what stops her from calling 999? And why does Davey respond to Mrs Stroud’s kindly overtures by walloping her in the face with a chair?
Owen’s taste for over-the-top savagery makes Paul’s cyber-game hard to credit. Players earn bonus points for ignoring their victims’ pleas for mercy while feeding their bodies into a bacon-slicer and simultaneously urinating in their mouths. The accumulated details — the screams, the blades, the widdle — are presented with pornographic relish and there’s an expectation, perhaps justified, that play goers will enjoy sensing a weird rush as their disgust throttles are shoved to the max and beyond.
The play’s second half becomes a bit soppy as the three men grope towards redemption, healing and closure. And though Owen has many skills as a writer, his weakness for mannerism lets him down. Alan, scrutinising Paul’s abdomen, is startled by ‘the hair in the belly button like a thousand trampled daddy-long-legs. Foul. And perfect.’ Does that sound like a gas-fitter in the middle of a crime, or a play-wright adding an ornamental grace note to an Important Drama?
The Royal Court will consider this lauded play a massive hit. It certainly suits the Court’s current mission as a Whitehall policy unit offering ideas for lobbyists, reformers, judges, MPs and other cud-chewing guardians of public morality. But the theatre isn’t the ideal venue for Killology. It belongs in a lecture hall as the evening session at a criminology seminar. The uncomplicated stagecraft — three talking heads on a scorched-earth set — would work well in a conference room with the lights turned down.