Review: A Splinter of Ice

by Lynn on January 10, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Happy New Year, all….

Streaming on line until January 30, 2022.

Written by Ben Brown.

Directed by Alastair Whatley and Alan Strachan

Design by Michael Pavelka
Lighting Design by Jason Taylor
Sound Design and Composition by Max Pappenheim
Cast: Stephen Boxer

Sarah Crowe

Oliver Ford Davies

A gripping play and production about the cold war, spying, friendship and a masterclass in acting.

The Story and Comment. It’s Moscow, 1987, two years before the end of the Cold War. Graham Greene, the British writer, is there at a peace conference with politicians, Hollywood celebrities and other dignitaries.  But he’s also made arrangements to have dinner with his former boss when they both worked at MI6, who happens to be the infamous double agent, Kim Philby. They haven’t seen each other in 30 years.

Some background: MI6 is the British Secret Intelligence Service: Military Intelligence, section 6—its focus is international spying. In WWII both Graham Greene and Kim Philby worked for MI6—with Philby being Greene’s boss. But Philby was also a double agent for the Russians during the war (unbeknownst to Greene etc.).  Philby was revealed as a spy for Russia in 1963 and defected to Russia.

That’s the background. As for the play, because of the nature of who these men are, we can assume this is not just a dinner between friends. Both of these men were spies for their country and Philby was a double agent.  We want to know why Graham Greene initiated the visit, and from the dialogue it sounds like he did. Philby makes things difficult by saying at the top that Greene can’t ask him any questions.

How do you get around this detour? Both men are experienced in getting information from people who don’t want to give it. And playwright Ben Brown is quite smart in showing the clever dance both characters do around each other as Greene appears to be easy-going in his general conversation. He says he just has one question: “How is your Russian?” Philby naturally is on his guard as is Greene—Greene asks if the place is bugged. But when Philby appears to relax and trust Greene Philby tells Greene he can ask him anything he likes. That’s when the floodgates of information open. There’s a lot of information about both men and certainly about Philby, who was a spy, an organizer, a reporter and he knew where there were a lot of skeletons.

At times the play seems like an intensive history lesson, with tangential instruction in the various wars around Europe, spying, with lots of dates and places to the point your head was swimming with it all. Then there were Philby’s various wives. He seems to have been smitten easy and quickly by strong, independent women. The easy-going Rufa was his last wife.

But at no time did I get the sense that playwright Ben Brown was slowing down the pace to explain stuff to the viewer. We got it or we didn’t and there was so much that was fascinating I’ll look it up. For example, Philby mentioned the actor Peter Ustinov and how his father was one of Philby’s British agents in the war.  Who knew? I was stunned by this. The play deals with the psychological impact on both men of spying. Certainly Greene proved to be a defender of Philby—not as a spy against Britain, but as a friend, a man. Philby was a man true to his convictions towards Russia and Greene was impressed with that conviction. Greene wrote a foreword to Philby’s book “My Silent War.”

With the density of the information about both men, the play gives a sense at how they had to keep everything straight in their minds and certainly in the case of Philby who was spying on two countries as a double agent. There’s even reference to Greene’s novel “The Third Man” that was made into a film. Philby thought he was the model for “The Third Man”.

Again, no explanation was given about the film. It’s that Ben Brown expected you to keep up with the info. You weren’t completely in the dark because enough information is given about the characters and situations to get it. The intrigue just grips you.

In an impish wink to those who know, the wonderful theme music from the film of “The Third Man”, by Anton Karas is also the theme music for A Splinter of Ice. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you will know the music immediately.

The Production. This streamed version of the play works a treat. It was filmed on the stage of the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre where it played. Oliver Ford Davies plays Graham Greene. He’s distinguished, quiet, watchful and never unsettled. He wears a double-breasted suit and tie.

Stephen Boxer plays Philby and he’s equally careful and also relaxed. Philby is casually dressed in corduroy pants, shirt and casual bomber jacket and a tie—I loved that touch—once an Englishman, always an Englishman.

Sara Crowe plays the small role of Rufa, Philby’s last wife. She is a gentle bridge to the two men, a softener—she is welcoming to Greene and loving to Philby.

Designer Michael Pavelka has created a simple set for Philby’s apartment—two chairs, side tables and a cadenza where the liquor is. They spend the whole evening drinking—there’s a hint that Philby might have a problem with the stuff.  Neither man gets drunk.

The production is directed with great detail and care by Alastair Whatley and Alan Strachan. The camera is a pair of eyes. When one character says something of note or is surprising the camera can do a close up of a silent reaction from the other. The directors want us to see that reaction, hence the close-up. Not a moment is squandered.

And no one, including the audience. is allowed to get comfortable.  The conversation is going along with information being revealed when Philby quietly asks Graham Greene why he’s come to see him. It seems to come out of the blue but again Philby is adept at reading the room for clues as is Greene.  More startling information is revealed.

The action does not seem static with both men sitting and talking because of the excuse of Philby getting up for more drink. There is a natural motion and movement to the staging.

I found A Splinter of Ice and the production to be fascinating about two hugely fascinating men.

I highly recommend that people seek this out and watch it too.

Produced by The Cheltenham Everyman Theatre.

Plays until January 30, 2022.

Streaming on line until January 30, 2022.

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