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A Splinter Of Ice, Theatre Royal, Bath Review

Theatre Royal Bath 
The splinter of ice in the play’s title could be thought to refer to the cold war which in 1987 was just beginning to be on its way to warmer climes but in fact was a quote from Graham Greene referring to there being “a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer” meaning he could observe complete detachment in his craft. The friendship of the novelist Graham Greene who worked for MI6 and Kim Philby, the double agent who was once his boss is under examination – did Philby betray his friend, and how much did the novelist really know about Philby’s underworld life as a spy.

Ben Brown’s play speculates a situation that might have occurred if Greene and his erstwhile colleague Philby had met at this time, some thirty years after the chilly events and tiptoed around the subject like a pair of shadow boxers trying to beat out the truth. One of the most recognisable theme tunes of all time from The Third Man evokes the shifty shadow of Harry Lime; perhaps Graham Greene based this character on Philby; a plausible theory but it’s probably just that : a theory.
Theatre Royal Bath 

Stephen Boxer is a fine actor and plays Philby with a nuanced air of remorse mixed with disappointment at the outcome of events. He allows Greene to draw him out and tell the story as he sees it. Oliver Ford Davies as Greene is able with the smallest blink of an eye to convey suspected ambiguity and intrigue in the questions and answers. The two speak as comfortable old friends, at ease with their lives now but always unable to unhitch themselves from the tenuous attachment still to ‘the firm’. Stephen Boxer and Oliver Ford Davies have a remarkable presence between them, and interest never flags over both halves of the play. Karen Ascoe plays Philby’s fourth and last wife Rufa who was Russian, and they remained together until his death in 1988.

You need your wits about you for this play as it is hard to separate imaginary truths from the reality of what happened between these two, but nevertheless it’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in the compelling world of spies and counter-spies, the stuff of so many films and novels, and a timely reminder that witnessing the wreckage left of Philby’s life at the end – four wives, estranged friends, absent family, never being able to go home – that maybe the life of a spy is not so glamorous as it seems.

Jacquie Vowles
Theatre Royal Bath 

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