Skip to content


The Best Of John Betjeman
Published on Saturday, 22 August 2009

Lance Pierson is an Actor, with a very capital A; he's got the voice, he's got the presence, he's got the style. He is, in short, the complete antithesis of what I think of as the Fringe. But here's the paradox: in his one-man show The Best Of John Betjeman, Pierson is doing something he couldn't do bestriding the stage at Stratford or the West End; offering a charming, intellectual, but above all intimate trip through the life of one of Britain's best-known and best-loved poets.

Filling the packed room with his projected tones, Pierson doesn't just recite the former Poet Laureate's words; he truly acts them. With an almost child-like expressiveness, yet never straying into over-acting, Pierson brought out both the pathos and the humour of Betjeman's poems. His stunning vocal range compellingly evoked a vast cast of characters including, of course, the great man himself; it was fascinating and enlightening to hear such a skilful practitioner work with the lines I've only ever heard in my own voice, in my own head.

It was, too, an education. I feel slightly embarrassed to admit this now, but I'd never really noticed that Death In Leamington is about the demise of an old town, as well as an old lady; Pierson's commentary and the discreet accompanying slide-show made it all perfectly clear. It was fascinating, too, to hear more about the famous poet's unhappy younger life, described partly in the style of an amiable lecture and partly through readings from his autobiographical poem, Summoned By Bells.

At times, though, I did feel this worthy instinct to inform led Pierson slightly astray. He's perfectly aware, for example, that a big chunk of his audience is there to hear Slough - and his desire to educate them about its true meaning (why are the cabbages coming now?) was absolutely spot-on. But by interspersing his remarks with the individual verses of the poem, he ensured that we never actually got to hear the Betjeman original right through. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to feel a trifle disappointed.

This is a two-part show, and I saw only the lunchtime Part 1; the poet's later life is the subject of the evening show (which needs a separate ticket, though there's a juicy discount for seeing both). I'm not sure this format works all that well for the perpetually bite-sized Fringe, but I can't complain too much. If he'd simply never mentioned there was a further instalment, I'd have walked away perfectly satisfied.

All in all, this was a delightful and informative way to spend a lunchtime hour... and the final, feel-good recital of A Subaltern's Love Song put a spring in my step which lasted the rest of the day. I guess that's the kind of thing only an Actor can achieve.

<< David O'Doherty: David O'...   Broken Records >>