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Theatre review: The Lion in Winter 
22nd-Dec-2011 10:54 pm
It must be a slightly OCD sense of wanting to see out Trevor Nunn's year-long tenure at TRH that led me back there after his terrible Tempest; especially since Robert Lindsay, an actor I have, to put it nicely, never warmed to, is the male star. At least Celebrity Gurkha-botherer Joanna Lumley is there as a positive note. The play is the 1966 hit The Lion in Winter by James Goldman (whose programme bio is confusingly present-tense, despite revealing halfway through that he's been dead over a decade) and it tells the story of the struggle to decide who would succeed King Henry II, in the style of a grumpy family Christmas reunion. Eleanor of Aquitaine (Lumley) has spent the last ten years imprisoned due to her tendency to start civil wars against her husband. She favours Richard the Lionheart (Tom Bateman) while Henry (Lindsay) is backing stroppy teenager John (Joseph Drake.) Of course history saw both of them get a turn on the throne; middle son Geoffrey (James Norton) is treated as a spare part but has his own thirst for power and is willing to back whichever brother looks like giving him the most. The catalyst is visiting French King Philip II (Rory Fleck-Byrne) and the pawn in the middle is Philip's half-sister Alais (Sonya Cassidy,) meant to be betrothed to Richard but currently Henry's mistress.

The echoey castle chambers of Stephen Brimson Lewis' set sit at odds with the intimate family feel of the play's high concept - I spent a lot of the time wondering where all the servants were. Much of the production has the feel of a creaky '70s sitcom - at least Lumley can pinch out a bitchy putdown with the best of them. Fortunately I didn't dislike Lindsay's performance but it didn't particularly grab me either - like the show as a whole, there's not much to it. As well as sitcom there's hints at farce, which all makes the attempt at a dramatic denouement hard to accept. The production has its entertaining moments and the love-hate relationship between the King and Queen sees some sparks fly but there's lengthy dull patches as well. This felt like a museum piece, a terribly safe and cosy choice to bow out on.

The Lion in Winter by James Goldman is booking until the 28th of January at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
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