Tom Conti and Laurence Fox in The Patriotic Traitor

One of the pleasures of living in London is the theatre and I don’t necessarily mean the big ones hosting the big names. There are lots of smaller theatres putting on excellent work and you don’t have to pay through the nose for seats. On Wednesday I went to the Park Theatre, in Finsbury Park, to see a new play, The Patriotic Traitor. It’s by Jonathan Lynn and is about the relationship between Charles de Gaulle and Philippe Pétain, who was in charge of Vichy France during the war and it has Tom Conti playing Pétain and Laurence Fox playing de Gaulle.

I knew nothing about their relationship and not a great deal about Vichy France. My overriding impression of it having been a ‘bad thing’ comes from the scene at the end of Casablanca when Captain Louis Renault throws a bottle of Vichy water into a bin in disgust and then goes off with Rick to ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’

The play begins with Pétain on trial for treason aged 89 and then through flashbacks tracks his relationship with de Gaulle from when de Gaulle was a stubborn, overconfident and utterly humourless young man struggling to get ahead in the military. Pétain, whose reputation had been made in the First World War at Verdun, took him under his wing and became father figure, mentor and godfather to his child. The second half moves into the darker territory of what happened to both men during the Second World War. De Gaulle was exiled in Britain and became leader of the free French, whereas Pétain remained in France in charge of Vichy and collaborated with the Nazis. At the end of the war de Gaulle put his old friend on trial for treason.

Jonathan Lynn, as you’d expect from a man who wrote numerous episodes of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, is good at generating laughs but he also has an impressively light touch when it comes to the heavier material of the play, the politics and the military tactics. One of the most interesting parts for me was about what Pétain did at Verdun which established his reputation as the saviour of France. The play  is not simply about the relationship between two men, it is on a wider level about what a nation is, what the soul of a country is and what happens when that is corrupted.

Both men are a pleasure to watch. Tom Conti brings an avuncular warmth and world weary intelligence to the role of Pétain  and Laurence Fox conveys exactly the right mixture of ramrod stiffness, stubbornness and vulnerability.

I saw Tom Conti in the original 1979 stage production of Whose Life is it Anyway. His performance was as charismatic and compelling a piece of acting as you could ever wish to see and has stayed with me ever since. No other version of the play or film came close to the power of his original performance. It’s a joy to see him back on the stage in a new play and to see that ‘the old fox’, (an expression actually used to describe Pétain in the play) is on such very fine form.

Incidentally, if there are any actors out there who want a lesson in how to act drunk, beg, steal or borrow a ticket and watch a couple of masters at work.

I’ll end with a quote from the afterword of the play text which is on sale for £5 and well worth buying. This is what Churchill had to say about de Gaulle, with whom he had a notoriously prickly relationship.

“A great man? Why he’s selfish, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s the centre of the universe, he … You’re right he is a great man!”

The play is only on for a short run (until March 19th) but hopefully will transfer so that more people get the chance to see it.

Have you seen anything good recently at the theatre?

Here’s the link: