Review by Lucas Miller.
Written by William Douglas Home | Directed by Richard Digby Day | With Edward Fox and Helen Ryan | King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, February 16-21, 2009.
Lloyd George knew my father,
Father knew Lloyd George!*
It is from these catchy, obviously profound lines (to be repeated continually, or until the singer just gets bored) that William Douglas Home’s Lloyd George Knew My Father (1972) takes its title. The revival of this play, by Theatre Royal Bath Productions, is an interesting one. It allows for the resurfacing of not just a good play, but an important personage – no, not Lloyd George, who is covered enough by tedious school text books and biographers, but rather, William Douglas Home. Indeed, the programme accompanying the performance focuses far more on the playwright than the play. It portrays Home as “quintessentially English,” an aristocrat.
It was his aristocratic background (which is a recurrent theme in his plays) that sometimes prevented his success, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Plays about the British upper classes were, with some good reason, tired. But this criticism is unfair to Home’s work, as it deals with issues larger than comedic British twittery – issues that are of importance to the community at large, as exemplified in Lloyd George Knew My Father.
The play deals with issues of conservatism, in its purest sense. Lady Boothroyd (Helen Ryan) plays an elderly woman, married to General Sir William Boothroyd (Edward Fox), an hilariously decaying, eccentric old gentleman. One morning, over breakfast, Lady Boothroyd reads in the papers that the government are to build a bypass running through their property on the Warwickshire / Oxfordshire border. In protest, she decides to commit suicide as soon as the construction begins. Luckily, her soon-to-be son-in-law is a reporter and writes a whopping good feature complete with photographs. Good publicity – they even want to interview Lady Boothroyd on television. But does she really intend to go through with it? And will her claim force them away?
The issue here is one that reflects the historical and political context of the latter half of the 20th century. As more people began to drive automobiles, the government began building more roads to cater to them. With the amount of cars on the road always increasing, there were fears of road congestion. So, many more roads were built. So many, that the roads began to congest the countryside. Sites of Scientific Interest, Scheduled Ancient Monuments, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, archaeological sites and other areas of national importance, were therefore in danger of being destroyed. Issues of conservation arose and there have been many protests for preservation continuing even to this date, many of them, unfortunately, unsuccessful. A verse that illustrates the context well, used at one such protest and documented in the productions programme, reads: “Let it not be said, and said unto your shame, / That there was beauty here, before you came.”
But Lloyd George Knew My Father goes deeper than that. Its main characters, Lady Boothroyd and Sir William, are people of a different time and world – a dying generation. They are to be compared with the land under the threat of so-called progress and modernity. It is not only the old landscapes of Britain under threat, but an old way of life. No doubt, there is symbolism when the characters look with sentiment at a portrait of an early Boothroyd, hanging against the wall in the same direction of the future bypass. And scenes between Lady Boothroyd and the younger characters, her granddaughter Sally (Charity Reindorp) and Sally’s fiancé, Simon (Dudley Hinton), show that a coexistence, between the old and the new, is in fact possible.
The production, directed by Richard Digby Day, is a real success. The acting is strong, especially that of our two leads, Edward Fox and Helen Ryan. The play’s humour, essential to its value as an entertainment, is a lot of the same, and depends on Sir William’s senility, which Fox handled very well. In terms of performance, he was definitely the star of the show. Stage directions are effective, especially a poignant scene in Act II when the characters stand erect, again facing the future bypass, honouring Lady Boothroyd who has supposedly committed suicide.
The play is advertised as a comedy. It is certainly very funny, but there is a lot of the tragic in it, too. It should not be discarded as another British comedy about stuffy aristocrats. Instead, it should cause the viewer to think on the past, and whether we should allow the future to replace or destroy certain aspects of it, while at the same time provoking a satisfying amount of laughter.
*The song refers, so far as this writer is aware, to that Prime Minister’s selling of honours.