Review – The Lion in Winter, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Monday 9 January 2012

Well, of course our New Year resolution  to never again visit the theatre bogged down with preconceptions or expectations didn’t last long. Less than 24 hours in fact.

Resolving not to go to things with expectations was a bit daft really. Critics claim to approach things with open minds but it’s easier to do that when the reviews aren’t out which is why we often try and see previews. But for most audiences it’s different; what punter could possibly go to Jerusalem or One Man, Two Guvnors or Matilda without wondering if it will live up to its promises?

On New Year’s day the resolution went straight out of the window with a visit to the pictures to see the highly praised The Artist Fortunately we were not at all disappointed and yes the dog(s) really is (are) as good as you’ve heard. Strangely the film begins in 1927, which is also the name of the theatre company behind The Animals and Children Took to the Streets which led to us striking such a daffy resolve.

Still, one resolution remains: Andrew has promised himself a dry January yet again, which will make life very dull for Phil who has no truck with such matters. So in our traditional January-catch-up-of-things-we’ve-missed we took in The Lion in Winter in a state of complete sobriety. And having already broken our resolve we were able to approach it with some assumptions, not because of the critics you understand (whose reviews, if we’re being polite, were mixed) but because it had come highly recommended by people whose opinions we trust.

Nailing our expectations to our masts we were geared up for a camp curiosity which frankly sounded rather up Whinger Alley. Common sense should have set off alarm bells. James Goldman‘s 1966 Broadway trifle has taken 45 years to receive a West End outing and it soon became clear why.

It’s Christmas 1183 in Henry II of England’s (Robert Lindsay) Chinon castle. The King has had his calculating estranged wifey Eleanor of Aquitane (Joanna Lumley) banged up for years yet has invited her to join him for a nice family celebration with their sons, his mistress Alais (Sonya Cassidy) and her brother King Philip II of France (Rory Fleck-Byrne) who is also happens to be the son of Eleanor’s ex and has shared trysts with Hal/Eleanor’s son Richard. Oh and if that wasn’t enough, Alais was promised to Richard in childhood before taking on the role of royal bed-warmer (got all that?).

To add to this jolly gathering Henry is trying to choose a successor from his three sons, Richard the-Lionheart-to-be (Tom Bateman), Geoffrey (James Norton) and pre-Magna Carta fame John (Joseph Drake). Unsurprisingly all three fancy taking a stab at not just ruling, but at each other. Presumably the word ‘trust’ doesn’t feature on the family motto. They put the diss in dysfuctional. You’d be hard pressed to find a group of people holed up together less likely to gel. Who knew Celebrity Big Brother originated in the Middle Ages?

Cat-and-mouse power struggles with deceit and betrayal ensue. If only they’d had telly in 1183 (they’ve got a Christmas tree and presents, so why not home entertainment?) and settled down to watch The Great Escape, the squabbles might have been limited to who was hogging the Quality Street.

Their familial scheming puts the Ewing clan in the shade. For Chinon read Southfork. They’re quite bonkers and it would be no shock to discover they all suffer from tertiary syphilis.

Unfortunately, despite their royal status, there appears to be no staff around to do the cooking or put up the decorations. The Whingers’ personal highlight was watching Eleanor and Henry decking their halls with boughs of holly (Fa la la la la, la la la la) and wonder if Ellie’s behaviour is symptomatic of Christmas stress. Perhaps she just wants to make things perfect for her boys; if not syphilitic, might her shenanigans boil down to her worries of overdoing the sprouts?

Lindsay growls and struts around the hokum with a knowing twinkle whilst sporting a hairdo that suggests he should send his barber to the tower (by the look of it perhaps he already has). A miscast Lumley snarls, preens and bears her impressive nashers whilst sporting her curtain fabric/end-of-the-pier waxworks museum gowns most regally. Mrs Aquitaine’s boys strop around displaying machismo or irritating petulance or both.

The handsome set (Stephen Brimson Lewis) is almost as arched as the script and most of the cast look pretty well turned out. Phil’s mother will be delighted to know that the 12th century was spotlessly clean.

One can only sympathise with Lindsay, who presumably has had more than his fill of turkey this season. After the first curtain call he rallied his fellow players with a less than sotto voce “Let’s get out of here!” Who could disagree with that?

Trevor Nunn directs. The big question is why?



8 Responses to “Review – The Lion in Winter, Theatre Royal Haymarket”

  1. aculturedlad Says:

    I was intending on seeing this because it’s a really well known play and I’ve never seen it, I’m also a fan of Lumley but then it got more and more bad reviews.

  2. jay Says:

    Nunn wanted to do Follies but the Goldman Estate wouldn’t release the rights because of the Broadway production, which might transfer to the West End. They offered him Lion In Winter instead.

    Lumley would be a better Phyllis in Follies, provided she could carry a tune.

  3. While I had a slight case of trepidation when I saw the cast list, and you seemed to confirm my shivers, I came away wondering whether your thumbs down was more from the casting or from a basic dislike of the play, itself. Did you feel the same about the film with O’Toole, Hepburn and Hopkins? Just curious.

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Oh don’t ask us such a tough question Jenny. Probably a combination of casting and the play itself.

      Decades since either us saw the film, but remember it as highly watchable, probably because of Hepburn’s Oscar-winning (shared best actress with Streisand) turn.

      Certainly remember it being played straighter than this but memory can play tricks. Does anyone remember if the funniest moment (after the holly hanging), E of A’s line about all having knives in 1183 is in the film?

  4. Baroness Hollick Says:

    Oh, i’ts in the film all right. “It’s 1183 and we’re BARBARIANS! And how CLEAR WE MAKE IT!!”.

    Camp doesn’t come into it…

  5. sandown Says:

    Robert Lindsay has played King Henry II before, on the same Theatre Royal stage, opposite Derek Jacobi in Anouilh’s play “Becket”. Perhaps that is why he was anxious to get off early ?

    Goldman’s play is an attempt in the same line — with a medieval setting but written in a knowing modern idiom. It doesn’t work as well, and in the second half becomes too clever-clever for its own good.

    Presumably the TRH management thought that a play featuring a rich, glamorous family tearing each other apart over money and power would appeal to a West End audience, especially at Christmas. If so, they should have got someone other than nice Mr Nunn to direct it.

    Although one gathers that he is having wife trouble, too …

  6. Kytho Says:

    Shouldn’t the gnashers have been “bared”?

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