nick730 (nick730) wrote,

Theatre review: Never So Good

Harold Macmillan, the 1950s-60s Prime Minister, is the subject of Howard Brenton's new play at the National Theatre. Jeremy Irons plays Macmillan in a bit of a tour de force. Brenton's play is quite a straightforward biopic really, and though enjoyable, both of us (I went with cjg1) felt it didn't provide a huge amount of insight.

Irons is as good as you'd expect him to be if not more so - I particularly liked the way he almost imperceptibly aged the character as the story wore on. Brenton's conceit is to have a younger Macmillan (Pip Carter) onstage with the older version at all times. To start with we see the young man, haunted onstage by his older self; this is then reversed as Irons takes over the main role, and I particularly liked how subtly this was done - you hardly notice the actors have swapped around until after it's happened. Carter's Macmillan is almost a physical representation of the survivor's guilt that Irons' Macmillan feels for not dying in WWI. He is referred to as the version of Macmillan that died in the trenches, as he seems to feel he should have.

Ian McNeice has a good comic turn as Winston Churchill, and Irons also has many snappy one-liners, often culled from Macmillan's speeches. Anna Chancellor is also great as his adulterous wife; although she doesn't really get enough stage time, she steals the show when she appears. Howard Davies' production uses an interesting conceit of showing the cast dancing in the changing styles of the times between scenes, which is an effective way of showing the years passing, and also segues into a grotesque death-dance as we go into the First World War. Macmillan survived a plane crash, and the explosion effect is probably the most realistic I've seen on stage - we were in the front row and I jumped more from actually feeling the heat of the flames suddenly, than from the abrupt explosion itself.

Never So Good covers a great deal of ground, from Macmillan's mysterious withdrawal from Eton, two World Wars, the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair and his eventual resignation for "health" reasons. Perhaps if Brenton had concentrated on one or two major events rather than trying to cover the whole lifetime there might have been a stronger sense of purpose to the play. Still, it makes for an interesting life story and some excellent performances recommend this production. Christopher felt it was written partly with a TV adaptation in mind, and I can't say I disagree - don't be surprised if it crops up on BBC4 before long.

Never So Good by Howard Brenton is booking until the 14th of August at the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage.
Tags: theatre

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