An unremittingly bleak new play by Newcastle writer Sean O'Brien is nevertheless reason to smile.
Twenty-six years after the Royal Shakespeare Company first decamped to the city from Stratford, the important annual season opens with an offering heavily reliant on North-East talent.
The RSC/Live Theatre co-production, directed by Live's Max Roberts, bears the hallmarks of both companies with the emphasis on powerful writing and acting - made all the more powerful in Live's crucible of an auditorium.
Alan Howard, a distinguished RSC old hand, plays the poet Richard Jameson, now aged 80 (the `now' being 1987) and mulling over a mis-spent half-century characterised by writer's block.
Into his shabby domain, furnished with dusty books, comes earnest academic Rebecca Stone (Caroline Faber), naively bent on restoring his reputation by writing his life story. No stone will be left unturned. But under some of them, the aptly named fan finds nasty things lurking.
Keepers Of The Flame takes us back to the murky pre-war years when now celebrated poets like Auden took a left-wing stance, planting them firmly against Nazism.
But what if the good poets jumped to the right? This is O'Brien's conceit.
Jameson, a fan of duckponds all things Merrie England, is taken under the wing of powerful but barking press baron Lord Exton, played with gimlet-eyed passion by David Rintoul.
Soon the hapless poet is the propaganda-producing plaything of Exton, his carelessly cruel mistress (Maggie Norris) and his thugs, led by Deka Walmsley's chilling Finnegan. They want an alliance with America and the Nazis and Edward VIII back on the throne. Many influential people once did.
Jameson suffers for his beliefs but mostly for his gullibility and cowardice. How can you feel sorry?
It is difficult, actually, to know who you should side with and that is a problem. Jameson gets what he deserves. That, at least, will send you away happy.
Newcastle Journal, 7.11.03.