Keepers of the Flame

No prizes for spotting that the playwright Sean O'Brien is also a poet. This engrossing new piece is written in vivid verse - apt, because its central character, Richard Jameson, shares his creator's skill with a stanza.

Jameson's artistic heyday was the 1930s, the era of Auden, Spender and MacNeice. But where they were left-leaning, Jameson yearned for a cleansing inferno in which would be forged a powerful new England.

The play opens in 1987, and a young Jewish academic, Dr Rebecca Stone, approaches Jameson about writing his biography. O'Brien shifts backward and forwards in time to show how nostalgic dreams of Albion and misplaced patriotism grow into xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Seduced by fascist ideology, Jameson employs his art in the service of an abhorrent political cause with horrific consequences.

The play is filled with Faustian echoes. Finnegan, the Mephistophelean blackshirt, turns Jameson's head with honeyed praise for his poetry, fanning the flames of his vanity and ambition. It's Jameson's first step on the road to hell.

Along the way he falls under the influence of other demonic figures: Tenniel, the oily civil servant seeking information on far-right activities; and Exton, a media mogul with Nazi sympathies. He also falls in love, with Exton's hot-headed daughter, Jane. It is his betrayal of her, above all, for which he seeks absolution from Rebecca.

The play, presented in association with the RSC, offers a facinating parallel between inter-war and 1980s politics that has chilling contemporary resonances. In 1980s Britain Jameson finds an admirer in Steve, brutalised by the Falklands conflict and convinced of his own worthlessness. The account of Steve and his "political soldiers" seeking solace in violent sprees is all too familiar, and the politics they espouse are close to those of today's BNP.

Max Roberts's production rarely flags, but sometimes his staging is awkward and O'Brien's writing self-conscious. There's an occasional whiff of clichéd costume drama in the jackbooted Nazis and society doyennes in satin stiffly poised for a little political cocktail conversation. But there is also some fine acting.

Alan Howard as Jameson journeys from youthful zeal to vainglorious arrogance to moral cowardice - by the end of the play he's limp and slack-jawed with despair. And Deka Walmsley as the unhinged Finnegan, drunk on violence and hate, is truly terrifying. At its brightest, full-blooded best, Keepers of the Flame is red hot.

Sam Marlowe

The Times, 8.11.03.

Back to Keepers of the Flame page