Review – King Charles III, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th October 2015

King Charles IIII didn’t have much expectation of King Charles III before we saw it, as I didn’t know much about it. I knew it had received some glowing reviews and had done very good business in the West End – and that it had won the Olivier Award for Best New Play of 2014. I knew it was written by Mike Bartlett, whose Love Love Love we had seen in 2011, which we thought was a meaty and challenging play, and largely enjoyable. It wasn’t until I arrived at the theatre and read the programme that I realised it starred Robert Powell – a big name and seasoned performer – and not until I actually started watching the play that I realised it was in blank verse; like Christopher Fry, and TS Eliot, and…Shakespeare.

Robert PowellHold that discovery a moment whilst I give you a flavour of the plot. The Queen is dead, long live the King. The play opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the reality for Charles that he is finally to become King. His close family and aides are there for support, but you don’t really get the sense that he is ready for the challenge. However, when he has his first regular meeting with the Prime Minister, he questions a bill he is about to sign – that of restricting the freedom of the press following all the News International phone hacking scandals (yes, Murdoch, I’m looking at you.) The PM and the King don’t see eye to eye on the bill, and with the PM refusing to give way because it has gone through both Houses of Parliament and has received the necessary backing, the King refuses to sign. This simple action – or inaction – starts a chain of events where no one backs down; and when the PM sets up another bill to make it unnecessary to have the Royal Signature for the law to be enacted, the King turns up at the House of Commons, and, as is his right, dissolves parliament.

Richard GlavesIt’s an intriguing story line, and, approached differently, could I think have made for a lively, dynamic, dramatic play which would have educated and entertained with humour, satire, characterisation and some funny lines. However, sadly, in my opinion, being chained to the sub-Shakespearean blank verse makes you link it inextricably in your mind with the Bard’s History Plays; and as Mr Bartlett isn’t Shakespeare – I doubt you’d consider him a poet – he is weighed in the balance and found wanting. As a result, this just came over to me as an immensely tedious play, hugely self-indulgent, and almost totally lacking dramatic tension.

Tim TreloarTo me it seems to be a play that doesn’t know its own identity. Is it a comedy? A straight play? A fantasy? A parody? Half the characters are real members of the Royal Family, the rest are Mr Bartlett’s inventions; that’s fine, but within the characters whom we know, some of them are impersonations (William and Kate), some are half-impersonations (Charles and Harry) and one is nothing like an impersonation (Camilla). There’s no consistency in the way the characters are presented to us. Combine that with the use of versified text, some of which rhymes, most of which doesn’t, and you get an overwhelming feeling of artificiality. The use of plainsong, the use of masks (including a Fluck and Law Spitting Image Charles which I thought was just woeful and killed any vestige of dignity to which the play might have had pretensions) and the use of equally cringe-making ghosts (not so much Hamlet’s Father but William’s Mother) means there’s no attempt at reality and, I felt, barely any connection to the audience at all. We had a long should we/shouldn’t we leave at the interval session but decided to stay because I did have a faint interest in how it was going to get resolved. However, there’s a long scene in the second act where William proposes to act as a go-between between the King and the country, and the writing is as dull as ditchwater and completely without drama; it was about this time that I decided the only way this play could be rescued would be by having Fortinbras arrive in the final scene, defeat the House of Windsor in battle and take control over the land. Not that we want Norwegian prices in this country, I confess. Mrs Chrisparkle instead decided to give up and just go to sleep, believing that giving her brain and body a well-earned rest from the rigours of the day was a much more productive way of spending those sixty minutes.

Giles TaylorCredit where it’s due, Tom Scutt has created an imposing stage design that nicely conveys the austere grandeur of the Westminster Hall setting for lying in state, and functional parliamentary offices where constitution issues are debated with increasing incredulity. But you don’t get a feeling for any other setting, such as the opulence of the Royal Palaces or the outside world where Prince Harry might have a fling. Jocelyn Pook’s moody choral compositions for the State occasions are atmospheric and sung quite beautifully. Robert Powell is of course a fine actor with a strong stage presence, and he does bring some warmth and a sense of self-awareness to the role of Charles. Richard Glaves gives a good performance as Harry, with a suitably Sloany voice and a surprising lack of interest in Things Royal; but other than that, the performances that impress more are of the imaginary characters – Tim Treloar in great form as the Kinnock-based PM, Giles Taylor as the manipulative Leader of the Opposition and Lucy Phelps as Harry’s girlfriend Jess; part fish out of water, part wise Fool who sees the truth.

Lucy PhelpsFortinbras doesn’t turn up – shame – and I think the ending is something of a damp squib, which is saying something considering the general level of boredom that the rest of the play engenders. In the programme notes, Robert Powell says he thinks the play is a masterpiece. Well, considering it sold out the West End, is touring the country and going to both Broadway and Australia, it’s certainly convinced some people of its worth. Personally, I thought it was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I really didn’t like it. I guess it was just not my cup of Duchy Originals Organic Earl Grey.

Review – Love Love Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2011

Love Love Love I can remember as a teenager poring over my Plays and Players magazine and reading about this new dynamic company Paines Plough, who were doing tough new right-on plays that were changing the world. It’s only taken me 36 years finally to see one’s of their productions! Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love has been touring since March and has two more weeks to go in Cambridge and Oxford.

The play traces the fortunes of a couple from their meeting in 1967, through their tempestuous marriage in 1990 to their coping with their grown-up children today. It pulls no punches where it comes to exposing the relationships bare and there are uncomfortable moments where the desperate needs of some individuals get annihilated by stronger characters.

Lisa JacksonAlthough it’s a play of three acts, it’s also a “play of two halves” to use footballing parlance, as both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found the first act somewhat underwhelming but the second and third acts riveting. Actually Mrs C described the first act as “a right turn-off”. This shows how Kenneth and Sandra got together, him downright pinching her from under his brother’s nose, and her being a willing pinchee. I thought Lisa Jackson as Sandra was particularly good in this scene, playing a most convincing posh 60s pothead. Looking like a young Tracey Emin, she strongly suggested all the freedom offered by the trendy lifestyle, and oozed a coy promiscuity by her body language and behaviour whilst also depicting the selfishness of the privileged young. The act certainly brightened up when she arrived on stage.

Simon DarwenThis scene also includes an excellent performance by Simon Darwen as Henry, Kenneth’s older brother who is hoping to score with Sandra but clearly hasn’t got a hope. Preferring classical music and disapproving of drugs because they’re “not legal”, I identified with some of the more staid aspects of his character and I felt he captured the doomed expectation that his brother would steal the girl away from him extremely well.

Ben AddisBut here’s the first act problem for me – well two problems. Firstly, it’s slow and seems to get unnecessarily bogged down with trivia in comparison with the tight, not-a-word-wasted speeches of the other acts. It’s almost as though there were two writers. The relative quietness of the first five minutes is a stark contrast with the overwhelming sense of confrontation that pervades every aspect of the rest of the play. The other problem is that, unfortunately, I didn’t really believe in the portrayal of the young Kenneth by Ben Addis. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actor or the writer, but I just could not see this slob, lounging around in a decadent dressing gown like a Slumdog Noel Coward, as having the magnetism required to “get the girl”. When I was a student I knew a guy who would always attempt to sleep with other guys’ girlfriends simply because he knew he could, and normally he did. But this young Kenneth really didn’t have that impact. However, as Kenneth in 1990 and 2011, Ben Addis was completely believable and gave a really top performance; although it’s stretching the imagination that by 2011 Kenneth was still playing his old record-player and hadn’t have gone out and bought all his favourite 60s music on CD, indeed if not having it all mp3’d wirelessly throughout his luxury pad.

Rosie WyattWithout giving away the rest of the story, Kenneth and Sandra get married, work hard, have two kids, and the rest of the play shows the journey (Yes! The “J” word!) that their self-obsessed relationship takes and the effect it has on their children, both as teenagers and adults. I commend the great performances from Rosie Wyatt as Rose and James Barrett as Jamie. Possibly the 1990 Rose was a little too like Catherine Tate’s Lauren for that age, but then I’ve never had a 16 year old daughter, so what do I know. Her 2011 parental demands pull everyone up sharp but are totally within character. There’s also a great little scene between father and 14 year old son where they smoke together and find a mutual ground in admiring one another. Throughout the play smoking is a common theme – it seems to be that if you’re smoking together, you’re on the same wavelength.

James Barrett  At the second interval, Mrs C and I decided that, given their upbringing and parenting, we thought the children in 2011 would have done pretty well for themselves and would be able to meet head-on the demands of daily life. You’ll have to see the play yourself to judge how accurate we were. Suffice to say the change of character in Jamie in particular was stunning to watch.

The whole question of coping with one’s parents or one’s children will always be one of life’s major themes. Some people manage it well, others don’t. The dilemma facing Kenneth and Sandra on the one hand, and Rose on the other is really well conceived and written. At times I agreed with one side, then I agreed with the other. I still don’t quite know who was right and who was wrong. It’s a play that keeps you thinking long past curtain down. I’m currently siding with the parents but I’m aware it makes me look like a heartless bastard.

I’ve read a comment online today from someone who attended the same performance and who described it as being “one of the worst things I have seen” at the Royal. Personally I think that’s way off the mark. It’s a challenging play and largely extremely well performed. The slow start is definitely to its detriment but it improves no end afterwards. No matter what, it’s great that Paines Plough continue to tour with innovative new work. Not everyone’s a Chekhov, but there’s still plenty here to get your teeth into.