The Theatreguide.London Review
The Old Country
Trafalgar Studios Spring 2006
Alan Bennett's 1977 play has not aged well. What once seemed original political analysis and insightful character study now comes across as somewhat laboured, working far too hard to make fairly simple ironic points.
Still, it contains a lot of Stoppardian wit and word play, and it's a vehicle for an attractive cast, and that might be enough.
An older couple in a country cottage bicker and joke with the ease and slight boredom of those who have nothing left to surprise each other with.
We will eventually learn that he is a British former spy who defected to a Russia that didn't particularly want him and has little use for him.
I've just given away a plot point that should come as a surprise near the end of Act One, but one of the flaws of the play and of Stephen Unwin's production for the English Touring Theatre is that it is telegraphed far too early, so that there is little shock left by the time Bennett gets around to revealing it.
The ex-spy is eventually going to be given the chance to come home, but the play's central irony is that Britain has changed so much in the years he's been away, and his image of it is so charged with romantic nostalgia, that he would be far more of an alien there than he is here.
(Alarm bells may have gone off there for some who spot that Alan Bennett himself covered essentially the same ground six years later in his one-act play An Englishman Abroad, and indeed The Old Country seems to take forever to do what Bennett would later do with more efficiency and punch.)
So if the play doesn't have that much to tell us about either the psychology of traitors or the nature of the British character, its attraction must lie in the incidental wit and the performances.
One of the more subtle indications of the ex-spy's unhappiness is the way he goes off on wild flights of imagination or verbal razzle-dazzle, as if to assert that he is more than a minor historical footnote.
His imagined letters to The Times, spontaneous mystery novel scenarios and elaborately constructed insults have a vitality of their own.
Meanwhile, though Bennett sometimes strains too hard to be witty or epigrammatic, he does occasionally make it, and a line like 'I'm not happy, but I'm not unhappy about it' is almost worthy of Beckett.
Timothy West can play old curmudgeons better than anyone else around, though he gives away the man's bitterness far too early, as does Jean Marsh, who is given little to do by the script except be testy as his wife.
As the visiting brother-in-law who is a high-ranking British civil servant, Simon Williams is far more successful in withholding information, allowing the man to come across as a pompous ass before gradually revealing his harder core.
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