Review – King Charles III, Almeida Theatre

Tuesday 15 April 2014

_Charles_image_260_x_356_pxNaughty Mike Bartlett.

This of course the same Mike Bartlett who once presented us with his Cock. Naturally we had a lot of fun with that title at the time and like childish schoolboys will always whip it out to play around with when the opportunity arises.

But it seems Bartlett is having even more fun with his “future history play”, King Charles III.

His playwriting credits are going to have to be very carefully organised in the future to avoid them being listed as Love, Love Love, King Charles III, Cock.

This play is set in the not-very-far-off future. One of Bartlett’s most audacious suggestions is that the Queen might die so soon. We’re in the immediate aftermath of her death with Charles waiting to be crowned, Harry’s still a loose cannon but veering from his usual “Sloanish fluff” and worrying about girlfriends with camera phones, the Prime Minister’s surname is, ahem, Evans (Adam James) and the leader of the opposition (Nicholas Rowe) has formed dodgy friendships with newspaper editors. Oh, and apparently Scotland didn’t plump for independence after all.

So nothing too hard to swallow at all, apart from the fact it’s written in blank verse. Phil’s concern was that this could so easily have skidded down the Fram route. KC3 could easily have gone so very wrong. It doesn’t. It happens to be wildly entertaining.

There’s a huge laugh of recognition as we meet each member of the royal family. An initially indecisive Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith), a drily funny Camilla (Margot Leicester), a fun-loving, scotch egg-loving Harry (Richard Goulding), the more sensible William (Oliver Chris), Kate (Lydia Wilson) who turns out to be as devious as she is surprisingly smart and Princess Diana (Katie Brayben), still with her head at a funny angle as she causes mischief from beyond the grave. Line the cast of 12 up in an identity parade and you’d easily pick out which of them are playing which members of the firm.

Pigott-Smith seems borne to play Charles. Initially proving he can do a good impersonation of the voice he then drops it to show a man driven by his conscience, someone struggling to make some sort of impact after years of frustration in that weird situation of having to wait for his mother to die. But there’s plenty of cheeky gags throughout; he pours tea to his Prime Minister with a twinkly “Shall I be mother?”

Obvious royal references mix with subtler jokes and in one very amusing scene Bartlett discovers a purpose for the kebab: kebab as metaphor. But what impresses beyond the humour is the machinations of the plot that follows a wholly believable logic when Charles refuses to sign a press regulation bill and sets off a constitutional crisis.

Tom Scutt’s design sets the action on a purple dais against the almost bare brick walls of the Almeida, it’s worth seeing for the opening funeral scene alone (stirringly thrilling music by Jocelyn Pook). Director Rupert Goold has thrown out his customary gimmickry and allows the compelling twist-filled plot to rule.

Shades of Shakespeare with its Machiavellian royals, wayward princes, devious politicians and a ghost stirring things up, plus the deliberately cod verse flourishes; it’s Shakespeare with all the dreary bits cut out.

This is much subtler than Spitting Image savagery. Bartlett steers a pretty steady path down the middle questioning the point of royalty evenhandedly and often not unsympathetically. Even if Kate is the Lady Macbeth of the piece, is she really acting for herself, or for the long term good of the family business (the Windsors that is, not the Middleton’s party company)?

The Almeida is on a roll. A West End transfer is inevitable and no doubt someone will be sniffing around for the film rights. This is this year’s Chimerica (so, if it wins next year’s ‘Best New Play’ Olivier award the TV transmission will probably slot it into the ‘other awards’ round up at the end too. Tut!).

Wickedly entertaining and impossible to resist. And hard to resist saying that for Mike Bartlett, this will surely go on to be much, much bigger than his Cock.


5 Responses to “Review – King Charles III, Almeida Theatre”

  1. Ged Ladd Says:

    Yes, Daisy and I saw this on 5 April. We bring a split jury.

    I loved it and would agree with almost everything Phil says.

    Personally, I had to suspend belief that Chazza would actually withhold consent from a Bill so early in his tenure (arguably, before his tenure even started), but the dynamic of the play made that suspension of belief possible, bearable and even part of the joy of the play.

    Daisy struggled with the Shakespeare style and references – she doesn’t like Shakespeare at all and/but did not revel in seeing her bugbear parodied.

    Given the subject matter and choice of writing style, I think it was a really difficult ask for Mike Bartlett to pull off this idea. He has done so with aplomb, ably assisted by some fine acting and directing.

    Even Daisy admired the acting – especially Tim Pigott-Smith who has long been one of her favourites – but also the supporting cast.

    Highly recommended, this one.

  2. Yes, how lousy of ITV to shoehorn Best New Play into closing credits of Olivier Awards. Glad you noticed, as I looked for other reviews and not mentioned – Chimerica was a worthy winner – I saw it because of your review, so look forward to seeing Charles III as I usually agree with all your verdicts…. so thanks

  3. Saw this on Monday and agree with most of what you say, particularly the strong casting and brilliant performances. I found the whole thing wonderfully uncomfortable, so much so I could hardly watch the final scene. However, I also felt the first act was vulgar, especially at the very beginning. I appreciate the talent of any playwright who can produce that nervous, uncertain laughter from an audience but I think including the ghost of Diana and that cliched portrayal of Harry tipped elements of the piece into pantomime, which was a shame.

  4. Sandown Says:

    This type of material goes down well in Islington, and in parts of Camden.

    But as for a West End transfer, and at West End prices, this show is liable to sink with all hands.

    The same applies to the Almeida’s current botch-up of “1984”, due to open shortly at the Playhouse. At least it is conveniently close to the river…

  5. Richy London Says:

    I saw the play at the weekend – maybe I should have read reviews a little closer – I wanted to see more Satire based around the King lobbying for his favoured causes. I liked the plain verse. I didn’t feel like it was well observed little things like the King referring to his mother as Mother rather than Mummy and the boys saying Dad rather PahPah! I felt the princes should have had more plummy voices. Ironically Kate was the most plummy of them all. I didn’t buy Harry’s character either – lacking in confidence and soul searching nor the love interest.

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