Theatre Review: ‘Tom and Clem’
‘Tom and Clem’ by Stephen Churchett. Aldwych Theatre.
Days after the confirmation of Tony Blair (anag: Tory in Lab) as Prime Minister, it was interesting to see a play about events in 1945, immediately after the Labour Party’s landslide victory in the first post-war general election. Tom and Clem, a play by Stephen Churchett, is centred on a series of imaginary conversations between Tom Driberg, journalist and darling of the Left, ex-Communist Party member and recently elected Labour MP for Maldon in Essex, and Clement Attlee, the first Prime Minister to lead a majority Labour government.
On 17 July 1945, the so-called “Big Three”—Churchill (British Prime Minister), Truman (President of the United States) and Stalin (Russian Generalissimo) began a meeting in Potsdam, outside Berlin. Meanwhile in Britain a general election had been held on 5 July, but the result was delayed to allow the inclusion of the votes of the million or so members of the British armed forces who were scattered around the globe. In Potsdam proceedings were adjourned to allow Churchill to journey to Britain for the result. He never returned. The Labour Party had won a famous victory (sic), and it was Attlee who was soon to be photographed with Truman and Stalin.
But it is not the world of macro-politics which forms the substance of this play. We never see Truman, Stalin and their acolytes, although we do hear their motor-cavalcades arriving. Rather Churchett has written a chamber play for four characters: Driberg and Attlee, and two members of the conference team of army officers — Kitty, an unshockable, “seen it all before”, Briton, and Alexie, a romantic young man who is her Russian equivalent.
For the most part I enjoyed the evening. The author gives us four credible, well-rounded, warts-and-all characters, who are played quite splendidly, and dialogue which is revealing and instructive. And the play is unexpected and refreshingly funny. There are some wonderful one-liners (“So you’re an agnostic then?” “I’m not sure. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”), and some hilarious exchanges prompted by Alexie’s attempt to understand idiomatic English.
Michael Foot argues in a postscript to Driberg’s posthumously published autobiography, Ruling Passions, that Driberg’s “homosexuality truly was his ruling passion”, and Stephen Churchett clearly shares this opinion. Driberg emerges as a practised seducer, who makes a play for Alexie with potentially tragic consequences: a man driven by his erotic appetites and love of the English language; a humanist who is still emotionally shell-shocked following a visit to a concentration camp. In contrast Attlee is a controlled, pipe-smoking pragmatist, whose passions are not so much sensitised by his intellect as anaesthetised by it. Michael Gambon and Alec McCowen play Driberg and Attlee with such finesse and conviction as almost to make you believe that they miraculously become these two long-dead politicians. They are simply magnificent. To watch them at work is a privileged delight.
But finally Churchett cheats. We know, with the benefit of hindsight, just what Attlee’s government did and, more importantly, did not achieve. And we know the effect of Driberg’s romantic passions because of their unfortunate, if unintended, consequences for Alexie. And, yes, many of Driberg’s beliefs were inconsistent, and foolish. Nationalisation has nothing to do with socialism, and capitalism cannot be changed so that it operates in the interest of the whole of society. But in the key last act exchange Driberg capitulates in the face of Attlee’s passionless Sunday School rendition of “England arise, the long, long night is over . . . ” Why? Not only does Churchett set up a false antithesis between Attlee’s cold pragmatism and Driberg’s supposed socialist position, he then rigs the result by gagging one of the combatants. It makes for unconvincing drama, and a disreputable attack on socialists and socialism. In fact socialists made mincemeat of Attlee’s position, as readers of this journal in the 1940s know well. Attlee’s successor, Tory, sorry, Tony Blair, will fare no better.