Tuesday, July 5

A Splinter of Ice – Original Theatre

This is story of two friends, Kim Philby and Graham Greene, two ex-spies, one turned traitor and one turned author. If you’re interested in the story of these two men and their friendship but don’t know many details, don’t worry: this three-hander tells pretty much the entire story of Kim Philby’s part in one of the biggest spy scandals of the 20th Century through one conversation between them. Written by Ben Brown and directed by Alastair Whatley with Alan Strachan, the team behind the play which inspired the Oscar-winning film Darkest Hour, the play imagines the final reunion between them just a year before Philby’s death, their only meeting since the latter was revealed as a member of the Cambridge Spy Ring and fled to the USSR.

I say “imagines” because, though the circumstances behind the meeting and the meeting itself are historical, what was discussed in it are conjecture as both men refused to go into detail about it. Of course, while their actual dialogue may be written for the show, the events they discuss and even some of their actual lines are pulled from the pages of history.

This performance was filmed on stage at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre and will be touring the UK this summer. As such, the production was conceived with both live and streamed audiences in mind. The set – furnished like a period flat but built like an open cage in which wire and cables delineate the edges of walls – allows the scenes and camera to travel seamlessly, the action moving from location to location without issues of sight-lines or lengthy transitions. The everyday furniture and ticking clock in the background give us a glimpse into a simple life, though one with restrictions, as attested by the non-existent walls, KGB minder next-door and the occasional loud gurgle of the radiator.

Oliver Ford Davies (best known for Star Wars, Game of Thrones and his archbishop’s bottom in Johnny English) plays Graham Greene, Stephen Boxer (The Crown) Kim Philby and Sara Crowe (Four Weddings and a Funeral) Rufa Philby, his fourth and final wife, met and married after his escape to Russia. The cast ably juggles the relationships and characters with dialogue which often needs to do a fair bit of heavy-lifting to catch the audience up with the previous 50+ years of events. Rufa here provides not just a contrast as a relative outsider (even though they are now in her country) but also as the more intimate, personal side of Philby’s life. These two men are friends, but there are layers to everything, including conflicting loyalties and agendas. There is also a sense of sadness, as the game is drawing to a close and both men would be dead within four years and Philby, despite his claims, has obviously not found the USSR to be the country he thought it would be.

All in all, this play should entertain anyone with a passing interest in the Cold War and the real-life celebrities focussed on here. The cast bring them to life with so much ease and reality that even those who may have little to learn about their characters going in will feel that they have spent time with the real thing. The program states the aim of the show was to be enjoyable as both an online piece and a live play, and while I cannot say how the two compare or contrast with each other, this is definitely worth experiencing at least one way if you can.

Playing online until 31st July https://originaltheatreonline.com/productions/20/a-splinter-of-ice

Reviewer: Oliver Giggins.

Reviewed: 16th April 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★