Review – Never So Good with Jeremy Irons at the National Theatre

Wednesday 19 March 2008

An understandably overlooked historical fact: Phil’s place of birth was determined by the Suez crisis. Or so he claims. While Andrew accepts that current affairs may have played a part in Phil’s genesis he privately feels that the Boer War is the more probable context.

Anyway, talking of history, Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National Theatre tells the life of Harold MacMillan, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1957-63.

Now history does not record this either, but Phil actually had two encounters with Supermac (the PM, not the fast food meal): once from the comfort of his perambulator at a Conservative fete (oh, the shame) and once in the 1980s shuffling down Fleet Street. Just to clarify: it was Phil that was shuffling, HM looked quite sprightly for his age.

The National Theatre’s publicity for the play reads:

Harold Macmillan, the Eton-educated idealist who rushed, with Homer’s Iliad under his arm, to do his duty in the Grenadier Guards, is tormented by the harsh experiences of war and an unhappy marriage. His career in the 30s is blocked by his loyalty to Winston Churchill and he nearly loses his life in the Second World War. When at last he becomes Prime Minister he is brought down by the Profumo scandal.

and that is pretty much all the play (the second preview) afforded really – a rather rushed and unsatisfying history lesson with some special effects thrown in.

Andrew lasted just 80 minutes – to the end of Act 2 (there are four acts and one interval) – before leaving to do nothing, an activity which felt altogether busier than watching bits of history unfold on the stage. “I know what happens in the next 20 years, thank you” he muttered before wandering off to the bus stop.

Before each war (there were two World Wars in the 20th century in case you’re not up to speed) there was a lot of dancing – tango and jitterbug which was presumably metaphorical. The WWI dance had the dancing couples dropping dead one by one which seemed very derivative of Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely War.

Playing the Eton Boating Song against the WWI scene seemed a cliché too far, even for the Whingers’ taste. But then any goodwill that Phil might have invested in the evening was frittered away when a park bench was introduced onto the stage (one of Phil’s many betes noirs in the theatre -along with balloons and others too trivial to mention). Even the loud explosions and pyrotechnics of WWII just felt like a desperate attempt to make the thing interesting.

Jeremy Irons plays the old and older Macmillans, frequently watching history unfold in front of his younger self. Without much to do, he seemed grateful for any distraction, even saying “Bless you” to Phil who had produced one of his signature sneezes (although it turns out that this was a bizarre coincidence – “Bless You” is actually in the script. Honestly).

We knew we recognised Mr Irons from somewhere:

There were some interesting people in the cast. Do you remember that stand-up routine Victoria Wood used to do about people at the theatre looking in their programmes and saying “Ooh, it says here she was in Juliet Bravo!”? Well, Never So Good goes one better and features (as Macmillan’s mother who may have been Irish or American or Irish American – we couldn’t quite tell; but according to the programme notes she was American) none other than Anna Carteret who actually played Juliet Bravo (left).

Other redoubtable names included Anna Chancellor (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Mrs Macmillan (Macmillan and Wife. Ha ha.)

Phil later reported that Andrew missed nothing by leaving at the interval. Just more of the same, or, as Alan Bennett pinching (?) from Churchill put it in The History Boys “History, it’s just one fucking thing after another” . More crepuscular gloom, more bad dancing to be-bop a loo-lah and some very Carry on Cleo style Egyptian music to introduce the Suez crisis. Phil half expected Wilson Keppel and Betty to slide on.

The park bench popped back for a second visit and Mr Irons carried on fluffing his lines (the Whingers have it on good authority he was as bad the night before). Phil struggled to produce a second signature sneeze to see if he could elicit another “bless you” from the actor and liven up proceedings, but it wasn’t to be.

What was the point? Phil learnt that Anthony Eden had better teeth, that President Nasser dreamt of “necklaces of pearls” (!), that Macmillan went to see Beyond the Fringe (sitting in the second row -how very Whingers) and was mocked from the stage by an improvising Peter Cook. It also appeared that politicians invented binge drinking (no wonder the country was in crisis), or was this just a pathetic attempt to get the Whingers on Mr Brenton’s side?

The whole dreary thing struggled to parallel recent military events on occasion but then doesn’t everything theses days? There are so many horrid things going on that you can’t move for parallels.

Lady Skipper (in the Whingers’ party and desperate to be quoted) declared it “too turgid to mock”, which sort of missed the point of what the Whingers are all about rather.


The National has taken to advertising the contents of the programme on the cover: “Who’s Who in the cast”! What will they think of next?

And stop trying to make rehearsal photographs sound interesting. “Exclusive” they may be but we want to see the hats and wigs and sets, thank you.

Never So Good programme

9 Responses to “Review – Never So Good with Jeremy Irons at the National Theatre”

  1. It’s my turn to see this one tomorrow night so thanks for the warning Whingers!

  2. Josh Says:

    Oh dear. I’m tempted to return my tickets for Saturday night, although I’m simply desperate to find out WHO’S WHO in the cast.

  3. tom Says:

    Apart from Major Barbara (which was really part of the last season), most of this season at National looks like it’s going to be pants. This always looked like a stinker… what is the actual point of the play? I can’t see, from the blurb on the National’s site, why it isn’t just served better as a history book…

  4. Sam London Says:

    I went to see a play about Macmillan about ten years ago starring Edward Fox and fell asleep it was so boring. Supermac just doesn’t make for great drama. Could I recommend renting the DVD of “Scandal” instead or downloading a great Radio 4 documentary on “The Establishment Club”, which has all the great anecdotes about Macmillan coming to watch himself parodied about Peter Cook anyway.

  5. Eve Says:

    Major Barbara is part of this season, not last season. It is te 1st play in this years £10 season. Don’t really know why I felt the need to correct you on that. Actually why do people get so uppity about the seasons at the NT? They all seem to blur into one now for me anyway. Maybe it’s the continued presence of Simon Russel Beale.

    As it goes I liked this a lot. And whilst at it I think the upcoming season looks very interesting. I am looking forward mostly to Rory Kinnear in The Revengers Tragedy.

  6. Graham Says:

    This is terribly pedantic, but Juliet Bravo was the character’s call sign – AC played Jean Darblay which isn’t nearly so glamorous (although I have seen it spelt D’Arblay which is much better).

  7. Thank you for your pedantry, Graham. As fellow pedants we are of course aware of the call sign detail but it would have been far too complicated to explain and would have made that terrible sentence even longer.

  8. Speedy in Los Angeles Says:

    Fine, fine – but how was Anthony Calf?

  9. […] blog reviews: For the West End Whingers review, click here For the American Look at London Theatre review, click here Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

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