The Lion in Winter
At Theatre Royal Haymarket
'Tis almost the season – panto season, that is; those few months of the year when every telly gay known to man gets their chests out or dons a dress (one or the other) and treads boards up and down the country in the name of festive cheer at its most camp. And yet, pipping all of them to the post as THE essential theatre going experience for gays this Christmas is this; Trevor Nunn's two and half hour adaptation of James Goldman's play about warring British Monarchy in the 12th century. Yeah, we're surprised too.
And this accolade is down largely, but not solely, to one woman: Absolutely Fabulous icon Joanna Lumley. I mean, let's face it – Lumley on stage was always going to be somewhat akin to a religious experience. Perhaps you've heard the stories: gay men launching themselves at her feet as if in worship from the studio audience at the recording of Ab Fab's sixth series. Nothing but pop culture myth? Maybe. But having witnessed her rich personality and impeccable comic timing at The Lion in Winter's press night last night, it seems entirely plausible.
She gives her all as the manipulative Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife to King Henry II, played by an equally charismatic Robert Lindsay (My Family). It's Christmas 1183 and the estranged pair are reunited for the first time in years – Henry's been keeping a power-hungry Eleanor prisoner; she's nevertheless more beautiful and glamorous than the entire cast of Tenko put together. Adding to an already at-boiling-point family dynamic are the pair's trio of HOT sons, who are each bickering over who should inherit their father's crown, land and, erm, mistress. Don't ask.
The for the most part fictional political squabbles often get (needlessly?) complicated and you'll doubtless lose you way; though this is hardly important. The beauty of this play is its representation of the family. They're a heightened lot, and yet they're instantly recognisable. The clan can literally argue for England and their conflicts frequently threaten to over spill into violence or even war, and yet, there is always a palpable, sickeningly complicated vein of tenderness between them. Joanna and Robert do an especially stellar job depicting a long-dead, empty-shell marriage that is by no means devoid of love and affection. Sarcasm abounds: Joanna is of course particularly adept at this. As an actress she relishes the material, delivering many excellently written catty remarks ("Henry, I have a confession to make. I don't much like our children") with a certain passive aggressiveness, a certain Elvis-like sneer and hand on jutting hip, that's ultimately very Patsy. For the most part this is joyous; and Eleanor's dialogue DOES hint at a more talkative and only slightly more maternal version of the Ab Fab icon, but of course, a harsher critic might be less than impressed by Joanna's recycling of certain character traits.
James Norton, Tom Bateman and Joseph Drake are our three princes; the former seemed obscured by the more animated performances around him (his lower key style often provides much needed relief, though), while Drake as a 16-year-old Prince John cranks up the humour and steals a few scenes with some serious teenage hissy fits complete with flailing arms and America's Next Top Model-esqe mincing ("Let me be king! Me! ME!" etc.). But it's Tom Bateman who steals the show; he's a gigantic, gruff and devastatingly handsome Prince Richard, the strongest contender for the throne, and the only actor on stage capable of channeling raw, passionate anger with no trace of parody. The sight of him in tan leather trousers (on a slight tangent, we want all the boys' outfits) alone is worth the admission price, and when his characterisation descends into sudden gay affair sub-plot territory (*gay gasp!*) Bateman thankfully throws himself into it with admirable gusto. He is absolutely perfect for the role and we can't wait to see him take on an equally passionate character (Heathcliff? Darcy?) in the future and fall in love with him all over again.
There were waves of laughter from the audience throughout the evening; doubtless this should be filed under enjoyable romp and you'll have a riot if you see it. But it wasn't without its drawbacks; while the first half hinted at perfection, fluffed lines marked the second, similarly the lack of restraint employed during the many arguing scenes starts to really grate towards the end, so loud and melodramatic matters verge, ironically, on pantomime – Joanna even seemed to lose her voice at one point. But let's face it, this woman need only raise an eyebrow and crack a smile to incite hysterical laughter.
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Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore
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