Pippa Dinnage goes absolutely stir crazy for this Bennett Bonanza
ADC Theatre Mainshow – 7.30pm Tues 20th-Sat 24th Oct
I was really looking forward to reviewing this show, but I didn’t really know what to expect from it. I’ve never watched the film, my knowledge of Alan Bennett is limited to ‘The History Boys’ and whilst I’d heard that the play was meant to be funny, the publicity looked more haunting than hilarious. Having now seen the show, however, I can sincerely say that it is very, very good, and well worth seeing.
The script is fantastic for a start. We see the impact that the King’s ‘madness’ had, not only on contemporary politics but also on his family, and Bennett makes some poignant remarks on society’s perceptions of ‘madness.’ There is satire at the expense of the Whig/Tory system of late 18th century, and mockery of the ridiculous and cruel medical ‘expertise’ of the era. What is more, the play is, in parts, hilarious, with a mixture of crass toilet humour, word play, and some snappy one liners.
Yet a great script is nothing without strong performances, and I am pleased to say that this production was littered with them. Bennett’s wit was conveyed with perfect comic timing by all members of the cast, and Toby Jones’ deadpan portrayal of the deeply serious Pitt had the girl sitting next to me in fits of giggles. Ben Kavanagh’s dapper yet slimy Prince of Wales was both highly amusing yet deeply disturbing, and James Sharpe’s and Simon Haines’ performances of the medical ‘professionals’ tending the King added to the sinister nature of the play. Lowri Amies, too, gave a truly heart-wrenching portrayal as the long suffering yet devoted Queen. Yet it was Oliver Soden, as the ‘mad’ king himself, who stole the show. In a matter of minutes he established George as a loving husband and eccentric yet intellectual monarch, and witnessing the demise of this once energetic and educated ruler into a shuffling and babbling old man was truly distressing for the audience.
This show was not only well performed, but also very well staged. A red carpeted staircase majestically decked centre stage, and the decision to play ‘Zadok the Priest’ as the King was humiliatingly forced into a restraining chair was highly disturbing. I still can’t decide whether to criticise or praise the decision to have only the King and Queen in contemporary costume and the rest of the cast in modern dress. On the one hand, it was anachronistic, but on the other, the juxtaposition of the monarchs’ colourful Georgian costumes and the black suits of those around them did contribute to the sinister nature of the play.
Some other aspects which could do with polishing- the back screen was, at times, lit far better than the actors in front of it, projection of lines occasionally wavered, and at some points the play dragged in the attempt to portray conversations as dour and deadpan. Yet these are minor criticisms of what is, otherwise, a well polished piece of theatre.
So what should you expect from it? Well, it turns out my initial confusion over whether it was going to be ‘hilarious’ or ‘haunting’ wasn’t so far from the truth. It is funny- I laughed out loud several times throughout the course of the show- but it was also very disturbing. At the heart of the play lies a discussion of the impact that mental illness can have on an individual and those around him, and some scenes are deeply heart wrenching.
Overall, it is an entertaining show, and, shamelessly succumbing to the obvious pun, you would indeed be ‘mad’ not to see it.