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 – Birdsong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th May 2013

BirdsongMrs Chrisparkle and I were probably amongst the last people on earth not to know what Birdsong is all about. We’ve not read the book; we didn’t see the TV adaptation; and we missed the play the first time around. My expectations were that it would be a World War One love story – all trenches and silk postcards, and probably with a very sad ending. Whilst there are some similarities, that doesn’t really capture it. Stephen Wraysford is a young lieutenant on the Somme – a fish out of water and with unresolved heartache concerning Isabelle, a married woman with whom he fell in love six years earlier. By use of flashbacks, you see how the relationship with Isabelle came about, and that developing story is contrasted with the here and now horror of the First World War.

Jonathan SmithI understand that the book has a complex time structure and so to adapt that to the stage is a challenge. Personally, I didn’t think it worked that well as a play. The first act in particular has so many backward and forward flip-flops in it, that you never stay in one place and one time long enough fully to digest the characters and build a dramatic tension. I confess I actually found the structure of the first act positively irritating. It was almost like it was trying deliberately to be clever, but at the sacrifice of the story and drama. It was very disjointed, and every time the story line got going, you’d flash back, or forward, and lose the momentum.

Tim TreloarThe first act is also way too long. Mrs C checked my watch after three-quarters of an hour – a sure sign that she was bored – but the interval curtain didn’t fall until another three-quarters of an hour had passed. The lady to my right, who hadn’t bought a programme, thought it was a one – act play and was about to go home when she twigged that people had left their coats behind just to go to the bar. Before the second act, she told me that it was only through discussions with her companions that she now had the remotest clue as to what was going on. Why had the daughter turned into a prostitute? Why had the father become a captain in the army? I showed her the programme note that says the play takes place on the Western Front, 1916-18, but also moves back to 1910, Amiens, as Stephen delves into his past. I also showed her that many of the cast double- or indeed triple-up their roles, so that if you’re not on the ball, you might get confused. “Ohhhh, that explains it” she sighed. She seemed to me to be perfectly intelligent, so I deduce that the play – or production – doesn’t communicate its message fully. Credit where it’s due though; the second act is hugely better. There are far fewer time changes, and those there are flow much more naturally. There was enough opportunity to really appreciate the characters and understand some of their fears and motives – and the acting generally improved too. Mrs C felt – and I tend to agree – that quite a lot of the acting in the first act veered towards the mahogany.

Liam McCormickVictoria Spearing’s set is amazing; in such a tiny space as the diminutive Royal stage, it recreates the trenches, bars, tunnels, drawing rooms, bedrooms, hospitals, and so on. The set is also subservient to the action; it never upstages it by clever trickery, it’s just there fulfilling its proper purpose. Similarly Alex Wardle’s lighting design effortlessly moves from summer sunshine to claustrophobic tunnel and the use of silhouettes and offstage mines and bombs is very effective.

Malcolm JamesAbsolutely central to the play is the character of Stephen, played by Jonathan Smith. He’s a mixed up character – rather selfish in some respects, generous and heroic in others; passionate in love; tormented by the past. Whilst Mr Smith really has the noble bearing that looks perfect for the role, I have to confess I didn’t really believe in the character all the time. I think the structure of the play, with all the time changes, really did not work in his favour. Neither Mrs C or I were convinced by his protestations of love for Isabelle – we didn’t get a genuine feeling of romance or passion; when they finally fall into each other’s arms and they indulge in the briefest of rather bizarre foreplay, I just felt he was going through the motions. It’s still a good performance, don’t get me wrong – I just thought he could have been a little bit angrier, a little bit more passionate; with deference to Dorothy Parker, he ran the gamut B to Y.

Sarah Jane DunnHowever, as Jack, Tim Treloar put in a superb performance. Full of honesty, clarity and insight, his controlled agony of missing his wife and son was extremely moving, and his support for his senior officer totally believable. There was a terrific dramatic intensity in his scene with Arthur, played equally well by Liam McCormick, when Arthur demands that Jack draws a picture of him. Now that was drama. When Jack cries out “he was my best friend”, that for me was the goosebump moment of the night. Other good performances came from Malcolm James, especially in his role as Captain Gray, Sarah Jane Dunn as Isabelle and Charlie G Hawkins as the terrified young Tipper.

Charlie G HawkinsI don’t like being negative about a production, and there are many good aspects about this show, but in the final analysis, it didn’t really do that much for me. Too much time flipping, too little sustained dramatic tension. My guess is that it simply works better as a book. I’ve read some other reviews of this production and I realise I am in the minority, most people seem to love it – so don’t trust me, see it for yourself, it’s touring until August!