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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal, Haymarket


  Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Of course none of this actually happened. But, what the hell, why spoil a good punch line over a few factual details? 

It’s Christmas 1183. Henry II, the King of England, who is also the Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Nantes and Lord of Ireland, has released his incarcerated wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, from her imprisonment so that she can stamp her imprimatur on his plans for the royal succession. She flatly refuses to play his game and opts instead for rules of her own devising.

James Goldman has concocted a dark comedy that revolves around a dysfunctional family set on destroying one another. Lies and alliances collide, plots and counter-plots abound. What we have here is Albee’s George and Martha recast as two of the most potent figures in all of European history. It was first seen on Broadway in 1966, starring Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris (who won the Tony). It was filmed in 1968 with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn (her third Oscar), followed in 2003 by a TV movie featuring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close (Golden Globe). Now it’s the turn of Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley. Surprisingly, this juicy star vehicle has never before been seen in the West End.

Henry is the infamous adversary of Thomas Beckett. Eleanor is the richest woman in Europe. At the time of the play’s fictional Christmas Court they’ve been married for 31 tempestuous years. Their union was “blessed” with several sons. The eldest is recently dead, which leaves the others squabbling over who will inherit the kingdom. Richard, known to history as the Lionheart, is his mother’s favorite. John, who will be forced to sign the Magna Carta some 20 years down the line, is his father’s choice. Between the two of them is Geoffrey, who recognizes the bitter fact that he is the unloved odd man out.

The banter, the bickering and the bruising are meant to sweep us along. The pacing should be so tight that we don’t have time to stumble over the script’s deliberate anachronisms, or to realize that this is little more than a glib sit-com got up in medieval drag.

As directed by Trevor Nunn, Lindsay (who is a Nunn look-alike) dominates the action. He is the lynchpin. Lumley is stridently impressive, but there isn’t enough modulation to her machinations. Without meaning to be unkind, she recalls Dorothy Parker’s quip about another Katharine Hepburn performance: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

Eleanor misses out on the play’s giddiest scene, a bedroom farce complete with unexpected knocks on the door and characters dashing to hide behind tapestries and within the curtains of a four-poster. What is overheard here is predictably funny for the audience and simultaneously devastating to the play’s five male characters – Henry, his three sons and Philip, the King of France. He happens to be the younger brother of Princess Alais, who is betrothed to Richard but is actually his father’s mistress. Oh, and just to complicate things a bit further, Philip and Richard once had a steamy thing going between them. It’s all very “spin the bottle.”

Richard and Geoffrey are played by Tom Bateman and James Norton. Both are stalwart. John – everyone calls him Johnny – is Joseph Drake. He goes way over the top with a brattishly needy teenage whine that Nunn should have reined in, or at least nuanced a bit more.

The look of the production is impressive. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ stupendously atmospheric sets are enriched by Peter Mumford’s gilded lighting. They both contribute to this enjoyable, though hardly significant, dollop of Christmas cheer.


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