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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Promise
Orange Tree Theatre       February-March 2010

Ben Brown's new play is part history lesson - three intertwined lessons, actually - and part personal story, and if it is ultimately more successful as education than as drama it is certainly a painless way to gain some fascinating knowledge.

His focus is on the events surrounding the Balfour Declaration of 1917, when Britain committed itself in principle to what would eventually be the state of Israel.

We thus see an important piece of Jewish history, along with insights into the political debates and compromises that led to the Declaration. Having introduced such figures as Asquith, Lloyd George, Montagu and Balfour, the playwright also looks at how their private lives affected and were affected by their decisions.

The play shows Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann lobbying and charming Balfour and others, the significance of Asquith's characteristic 'wait and see' passivity giving way to Lloyd George's assertiveness, and the importance of the perhaps lesser-known Herbert Samuel.

It spots the irony that Montagu, the only Jew in the Cabinet, was the Declaration's strongest opponent (because he feared that the escape clause of a Jewish homeland would increase anti-Semitism elsewhere), and recognises that it may have been less support for the Jews than fear of French and German influence in the Middle East that tipped the balance in Britain.

All this is indeed engrossing, but where the playwright stumbles is in trying to flesh out the historical figures by exploring their private dramas as well.

Here his focal point is Venetia Stanley, obsessively if chastely loved by Asquith, married to Montagu and mistress of Beaverbrook.

While the questions this plot line raises - Did Asquith remove Montagu from power because of the marriage? Did losing Venetia break his spirit and let Lloyd George in? Did Beaverbrook's papers support Montagu because their boss was sleeping with his wife? Did Montagu know this? - are all intriguing, the characters themselves never really come alive, nor does their story have much interest beyond its connection to the political events.

And much the same is true of the admirable and hard-working cast, which includes Miranda Colchester as Venetia, Nicholas Asbury as Montagu, Oliver Ford Davies as Balfour and Richard Clothier as Samuel. They succeed insofar as they give human faces to the names out of history books, but have not been provided sufficient material from which to create characters that are more than living portraits.

Director Alan Strachan keeps things clear and moving along, but he has not mastered in-the-round staging, and far too many scenes leave the actors planted in chairs with their backs to half the audience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Promise - Orange Tree Theatre 2010


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