It’s not often that I find Jeremy Irons charming. Perhaps it was the character’s affability that swayed me but I didn’t grind my teeth once, and that Mr Irons has rescued you from my bad books. You made a wonderful Harold MacMillan, and in watching this all unfold I got a real sense of the man’s honour and dignity. Not to mention some cracking one-liners.
I’ll be honest, although this period in history is one I’m keen to fill in the blanks on, it wasn’t until I saw the name of one Ms Anna Chancellor on the cast list that I was in any hurry to get tickets. So important an event that it was marked in my calendar weeks before, and booked within minutes of the booking period being open. It’s been a while since I felt that quiet desperation over getting to see something.
So was my excitement justified? For the most part, yes. The beginning was a tad slow. I enjoy the odd bit of warfare now and then but it takes a while to adjust to that dreadfully posh way that Etonian types have. Still, theatre is about escapism, and after the one tacky moment of the Eton fight song playing over machine gun fire, I had acclimatised to this peculiar world.
Actually, what I found slightly off-putting at first was all the ‘oh, for one’s country’ type of talk. Hearing Britons talk patriotically is a somewhat alien concept to me, unless it’s a bunch of drunken idiots cursing and swearing about football in impressive displays of xenophobia. I do feel a keen sense of patriotism for this United Kingdom (and not one just its constituent parts). In fact, I think that the only people I hear talking about love for their country are Americans, and that does sadden me just a little.
The humour of the piece is deliciously dry, in that oh-so-British way. I found the emotional repression slightly hard to swallow at first, but when it’s based in fact, what else to do but go along? I checked with the missus, and apparently she would be rather upset if I carried on a lifelong affair with one of her colleagues, so just as well I’m not Dorothy MacMillan I suppose. The effects were limited but well done, from the seamless set changes to an impressive arrays of explosions in different scenes ranging from the Somme to Algiers. Apparently it is possible to simulate a plane crash on stage in a fairly minimalist way.
The supporting cast were note-perfect, not one clunky delivery between them. Put it down to the press night shove to your best performance, but the timing, movement and pacing of every actor was a delight to watch. Sadly there wasn’t quite enough of a role for Ms Chancellor, but what I did get to see of her I enjoyed. It must get frustrating to be continually cast in those blue blood roles, but this one allowed her to be tragically naughty as well. I can believe her when she claims Harold is her true love, and given my discomfort with the adultery of her character, that’s achievement enough in my book.
It did feel a tad lengthy as second act numb-bum finally set it, but it was worth the extra minutes for the best moment, the understated and hysterical reaction to the Profumo scandal breaking (worth the ticket price all by itself). I wasn’t so emotionally shifted as I thought I might have been, but this stiff-upper lip stuff is a delightful capture of a lost time, and a type of politics Westminster wouldn’t recognise these days. Some careful and subtle parallels to the present political messes kept the relevancy quota up, although I fear even a play as clear and sharp as this one may be beyond some people. To wit, the woman at the interval exclaiming “all this time I thought Harold Wilson was a Labour man!” He was dear, and that’s sort of why he wasn’t in the play.
Never So Good a play by Howard Brenton. Showing at the National Theatre, London, SE1. Details and booking here.