Review: A Splinter of Ice, Original Theatre
4.0Overall Score

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The year is 1987 and the Cold War is ending. There is a peace conference on in Moscow, with everyone from Shirley Maclaine to Yoko Ono in attendance. The following year Gorbachev and Reagan will themselves meet in Moscow, paving the way for a more permanent detente. But for now, tensions remain: it will take more than a few Hollywood actors to instigate a true thawing in relations after decades of arms races and proxy wars.

Against this backdrop the two protagonists of A Splinter of Ice take to the online stage. Graham Greene (Oliver Ford Davies) is a prolific author of some of the most acclaimed novels of the Twentieth Century, including Brighton Rock and The Quiet American. Greene served in MI6 in the 1940s, at which time he befriended Kim Philby (Stephen Boxer) — a double agent who would probably become the most famous ‘mole’ of the Twentieth Century, when in 1963 he was revealed to be the ‘third man’ in the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring. 

Philby has been living in Moscow for the past 35 years, and Greene is visiting his old friend after attending the aforementioned conference. The two men catch up on old times. But how much can you still really have in common, when one man has made a career out of trivialising espionage through fiction, while the other has spent half a lifetime living the very real after-effects of espionage gone wrong. This is the tension that lies at the heart of A Splinter of Ice

It is an old-school spy drama that writer Ben Brown has created, much like the novels of John Le Carreé or indeed Green himself. The optics of the play revolve around fusty old white men sitting around on sofas, all cardigans and tumblers of scotch. Reminiscences about boozy lunches at MI6, time spent in Sierra Leone in the ‘30s, and the BBC World Service. But there is a sense of unease that filters into the script, evident in Greene’s subtle cross-examination of his contemporary, as well as the occasional aside, “Actually I better not say”. 

Tensions come to a head of sorts as the story develops. But there is no profound depth that the storyline seeks to delve. The audience is a fly on the wall at a fascinating moment, with apparently no greater ambition that a slightly nerdy, almost fan fiction-esque historical exposition.

Co-directed by Alan Strachan and Alastair Whatley, it was originally due to premiere on stage last month. But the Zoom version — filmed at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham — actually does a pretty good job at capturing something of the theatrical space. It is carried by HD camera work, exquisite lighting, and excellent performances from its leads.

Both Davies and Boxer give multifaceted performances. Davies as Greene is a benign old man who nonetheless seems just ever so slightly mistrustful. Boxer as Philby is quick and ironical, but with an edge of sadness in his eyes, and evident discomfort at being confronted by an old friend who has to some extent now become his enemy. 

Greene and Philby would both die in real life within four years of this meeting took place and indeed, approaching death is one of themes of the latter part of the play. It is affectingly poignant to witness two men so engrossed in their histories, when both their own lives and the event which is to a large extent characterised their life – the Cold War – are about to come to an end.

A Splinter of Ice is playing Online. For more information, see Original Theatre online.