Review: A Marvellous Year for Plums by Hugh Whitemore at Chichester Festival Theatre

THE BRUTALITY of the second world war had changed Britain more than it could have imagined.

As the nation re-emerged and reinvented itself – slowly and tentatively in the 1950s – its people discovered a different, social, economic and even moral landscape.

Then, in the midst of all this, they came face to face with the prospect of war again in 1956 with the Suez Crisis.

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A Marvellous Year for Plums puts this footnote in history under the unflattering microscope of time, laying bare not just the fragile politics of that episode but the human frailties that engulfed all those who were tied to them.

This is, of course, not a play about fruit. Nor does it recount a marvellous year for anyone at the heart of these events. But it does signify, more cleverly than any other title could, how in the end a crisis which dominated so many lives would become almost an historical irrelevance.

The word clever is used advisedly. For this world premiere is in every sense an intelligent production.

What lifts it from a political retelling to a mini-masterpiece is its multi-layered view of not just events but the lives of those who shaped them.

Sir Anthony Eden – played with such gentle and sensitive skill by Anthony Andrews – was the prime minister of the day.

Haunted by his own losses – brothers and a son – in two world wars; the shadow of his upbringing; and undermined by failing health and nerve; it is he who takes Britain to the brink of an illegal war.

He is surrounded by friends – like James Bond creator Ian Fleming – colleagues and political opponents who are also facing their own personal crises, more romantic than political but all-consuming none-the-less.

Whitemore draws all these portraits with a sympathetic brush and a warmth that stands in stark contrast to the cold and complex military debate.

Humour is integral too. One can always rely on a great quote from Sir Winston Churchill to raise a smile – in this case explaining that no oversees travel and a dislike of all things foreign are perfect attributes to be the foreign secretary.

Finally, all this is in the context of the social scene of the day – with period cameo dancing and music and a set which more neatly than any other conveys a sense of place.

There are, apart from the exceptional Andrews, some wonderful performances here. Imogen Stubbs as Ann Fleming looks drained by the final bow – hardly surprising given the way in which she injects just the perfect balance of tone and emotion in every look and line.

This is the 50th anniversary year of the Chichester Festival Theatre. Up to now it has had a shaky start. But with this production it has not only found its feet, it is striding ahead with all the artistic flight of foot for which it is world renowned.

Gary Shipton