11 September 2011

The Madness of King George III - Richmond Theatre, Saturday 10th September 2011

The story begins nearly three decades into George's reign, in 1788, as the unstable king begins to show signs of increasing dementia, from violent fits of foul language to bouts of forgetfulness. This weakness seems like the perfect chance to overthrow the unpopular George, whom many blame for the loss of the American colonies, in favour of the Prince of Wales but the King's Prime Minister William Pitt and his wife Queen Charlotte are determined to protect the throne. Doctors are brought in, but the archaic treatments of the time prove of little value. In desperation, they turn to Dr. Willis, a harsh, unconventional specialist Willis struggles to break through to the mad king, treating him with an anger and haughtiness George has never before experienced.
George III – David Haig
Queen Charlotte – Beatie Edney
George, Prince of Wales – Christopher Keegan
Frederick, Duke of York – William Belchambers
Lady Pembroke – Charlotte Asprey
Captain Fitzroy – Ed Cooper Clarke
Captain Greville- Orlando James
William Pitt – Nicholas Rowe
Charles James Fox – Gary Oliver
Sheridan – Patrick Moy
Sir George Baker – Peter Pacey
Francis Willis – Clive Francis

Creative Team:
Written by Alan Bennett
Director – Christopher Luscombe
Designer – Janet Bird
Lighting – Oliver Fenwick
Costumes – Hilary Lewis

Ah, leafy Richmond, home of designer boutiques for adults and spoilt children, trendy homewares stores and designer cupcake shops empty shops, the final days of Habitat’s closing down sale (£95 lampshades on offer for a fiver) and …erm…more empty shops. Looks like the recession is biting hard when Jocasta and Sebastian’s favourite outlets are all going tits up. Leafy Richmond, where you can eavesdrop on conversations in one of the many charity shops about how “no, we don’t sell knitting wool, can’t get it dearie, nobody round here buys it anyway, there’s a shop near Teddington station that sells it”. Looks like the Richmond Mummies’ Knitting Circle are having to import supplies for their “Chat and Knit Sessions” in Starbucks then. Things must be getting bad. In fact, things are so bad in Richmond that even the theatre has stopped selling programmes. Apparently they weren’t selling enough (probably because they were too bloody expensive in the first place) and they told their printers to reduce the print runs. “Bugger off” said the printers (I paraphrase here), “You can have 500 less per show”. “Not enough”, says the Theatre, “we need less”. “Well you can take your business elsewhere then” said the printers and put the phone down. Now, is that the right attitude to take during a recession? Telling your customers what they can have and what they can’t for their money? Shouldn’t they be grateful for the business, even if the customer wants less than before? So, Dear Reader, if you know a local printers that’s looking for work, tell them to give Richmond Theatre a call, because at the moment their customers are having to make do with photocopied cast lists – which is a big bummer because if there’s one kind of show that needs programme notes on the historical background, it’s “The Madness of King George III”, as evidenced by the idiotic American tourist in the row behind me asking his mother what the show was about. I longed to turn round and say “The clue’s in the title, you colonial fool”.

The lack of a programme didn’t seem to be preventing Fat Boy sitting next to us from hoovering up an entire bag of Opal Fruits during the first half (you know, Opal Fruits, those sweets in the really crackly bag and even more crackly wrappings round each one). Fat Boy was so excited by the prospect of consuming about 18,000 calories during the performance that at one point he was actually lining the sweets up on his leg in clumps of individual flavours, pausing only to wipe copious amounts of drool from his front and completely ignoring his father in the next seat along who was doing equally serious damage to a Value Pack of Revels (in an equally crackly bag). The clock was running so each was pushing in entire handfuls at a time in an attempt to reach Sugar Overload before the final curtain; according to the Box Office, “the performance finishes at 10:06pm – if its any later it will be because of human error”. I swear I don’t make these things up.

Anyway, I digress. This is a touring production so its leaving Richmond as we speak and heading for pastures new (details below). Catch it while you can because its worth every penny of the ticket price. Its necessarily pared down in terms of scenery (the play is notorious difficult to stage because of its many changes of scene), costumes (they could have invested in a few more costumes and had better quality ones, I think – I can cope with a sparse set but I think scrimping on costumes and wigs really makes a production look cheap, particularly for a historical play. Poor Queen Charlotte had to wear the same frock for the entire 9 years of the play’s action and the same awful wig which made her look like she had a bedraggled tabby cat sitting on her head. Mind you, some of those Royal palaces were notorious draughty. Perhaps British Gas should adopt a new slogan. “Save gas – get a cat to sit on your head”) as well as in length (in the original production, it ran nearly three hours. Here, Act I is advertised as “1 hour 38 minutes” and Act 2 “43 minutes”. Obviously Richmond are strict on timing – I had visions of people acting with an eye on the clock and frantically ripping pages out of the prompt copy while the woman in the Box Office checks her watch and jots down notes under the heading “Human Timing Irregularities during Performance”. So it looks a bit scrimped, and feels a bit rushed in places. Walls slide on, doors slide off and actors rush to keep up with them.

Fortunately, David Haig is completely in control as George III and would only need to fix his beady eyes on a retreating wall and shout “Stay still Sir! What what!” and it would creep back on its runners looking shamefaced. The play is, necessarily, almost entirely his and by heck does he work. It must be an exhausting part to play every night. He has an incredibly deft hand for comedy and also for pathos – his scenes with Queen Charlotte were almost unbearably touching in their domestic simplicity. It is a superb performance. Beatie Edney makes a wonderful foil for him as the homely and fat Queen Charlotte, worn out by 15 pregnancies yet clearly still besotted with her husband. Her accent is impeccable – she manages to sound exactly like a German matron speaking heavily accented yet formally correct English. If it wasn’t for that bedraggled tabby cat on her head…..Christopher Keegan was perfect as the Prince Regent – like an empty-headed Augustus Gloop obsessed with waistcoats and rococo furniture instead of chocolate. If I have one criticism about the performance of Clive Francis as Dr.Willis it is that he seemed to me to have modelled it far too closely on that of Ian Holm in the film version, right down to the facial expressions. This also seemed to be casting to type – there is absolutely no reason why Dr. Willis cannot be played by someone tall.

What could have a been an overpowering set is kept light and airy by Janet Bird’s pale wood designs, scored across in diagonal parallel lines to suggest the sheen of dark varnish on doors and panelling. Three enormous pairs of double doors are cleverly mixed and matched with rows of empty picture frames suspended above wainscoting to suggest a variety of rooms and corridors, and the pale wood flooring manages to suggest all sorts of open spaces and interiors given a few bits of furniture. Costumes, as pointed out above, were adequate and could have done with having a bit more money spent on them.

Appropriately for a play dealing with the Monarchy, there were no “communist bows” as Him Indoors calls bows for the entire company only. There seems to be a creeping egalitarianism in theatre curtain calls of late, as if directors think that it would be demeaning for those in smaller parts to have a proper “walk down” at the end. I don’t agree - yes, theatre is teamwork, but the audience should be given the opportunity to reward individual actors with applause if they deserve it. I “bravo’d” for Beatie Edney’s performance and was glad to see that she heard this and appreciated it. And by jehosaphat did Mr. Haig deserve his standing ovation from the majority of the audience. In fact, I’d got so caught up in the story of this unhappy monarch that I confess to having contributed a “God Save Your Majesty!” in the middle of it.

See this if you can. It deserves your support and you’ll come away having been thoroughly entertained, Which is, as they say, A Good Thing.

The production tours to:
Newcastle Theatre Royal Sept 12–17;
Norwich Theatre Royal Sept 19–24;
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham Sept 26–Oct 1;
Nottingham Theatre Royal Oct 3–8;
Cambridge Arts Theatre Oct 10–15;
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury Oct 17–22;
Milton Keynes Theatre Oct 24–29;
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford Oct 31–Nov 5;
Hall for Cornwall, Truro Nov 7–12;
Chichester Festival Theatre Nov 14–19.

What the reviews said: