The Madness of George III at the Nottingham Playhouse review *****

The Madness of George III

Nottingham Playhouse, 13th November 2018

Flushed with success from his visit to Manchester the Tourist hopped on a train across the Peak District to the proud city of Sheffield, (where I see the Theatres will be staging a Rutherford and Sons next year ahead of a version at the NT, and will then attempt to stage The Life of Pi, which should be interesting), and then on to Nottingham.

An interesting exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – but the main aim of the visit was the Playhouse and The Madness of George III. Now I booked this on the assumption, as with the Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange, that this was as near to a sure-fire winner as it was possible to get in theatrical terms. Alan Bennett at his witty best, but armed here with a riveting biographical story, directed by the ebullient new(ish) Artistic Director at the Playhouse, Adam Penford, and with Mark Gatiss in the lead, and Adrian Scarborough as Dr Willis, in a uniformly excellent cast. 

And sure-fire winner it turned out to be. Apparently it has become the biggest box-office hit in the Playhouse’s history. It was screened to millions (I may be exaggerating here) via the NT Live cinema programme and ensured a bunch of critics left their London mansions to deliver a slew of 4* and 5* reviews. The audience on the evening the Tourist attended plainly loved, explicit in the congratulations during the after-show discussions.

I saw the original NT production with Nigel Hawthorne as George back in 1991, the Apollo Theatre revival a few years ago with David Haig at his actorly best, and have seen the film version a fair few times. So you can probably tell I am a bit of a fan. I will assume that, since you are one of the very select band reading this, that you are too, so won’t bore you with plot or historical details. If you don’t I suggest you see the film tout suite. 

So what was so good about this production? Well first off Adam Penford has cut out a handful of scenes. AB’s play is already, like most of his work, structured as a series of very short scenes in multiple locations. This guarantees momentum but, allied with AB’s constant urge not to leave a potential quip on the table (which is why it is a comedy after all), can mean the characters, other than the King, come across as a bit thinly sketched. Cutting scenes out might seem counter-intuitive but it does actually mean we become more focussed on the “tragedy” of the King’s breakdown, and then the jubilation of his apparent recovery. I was also more aware here of the King’s relationship with his retinue. The political machinations, Whig vs Tory, the plotting of the Prince Regent and his faction, took a bit more of a back seat.

George III’s 59 year rule saw not just the Regency crisis, but the “loss” of American, the union of GB and Ireland, wars in Europe and throughout the burgeoning Empire, rivalry with France, the Agricultural Revolution and the accumulation of capital to fuel the Industrial Revolution, a new way to finance the monarchy, constitutional change and scientific advances (which George was keenly interested in when he was on top form). Whilst AB’s play only incidentally touches many of these profound changes it does brilliantly capture the dichotomy between the public and private life of the monarchy and the metaphor of the King’s breakdown mirroring the political struggle catalysed by the American War of Independence. 

The dynamism of the production was also very well served by Robert Jones’s ingenious set. The various locations were smartly rendered with a series of Georgian style duck-egg painted flats, on stage and suspended, which were moved into place with no interruption to the action at all. Richard Howell’s lighting design, Tom Gibbons’ sound and Lizzi Gee’s movement, as well as some blisteringly quick costume changes, all further contributed to the pace and period feel of the production (most memorably at the end of the first half). A theatre set to point up the theatricality which underpins royalty. 

However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the performance of Mark Gatiss that really made the difference. Adrian Scarborough’s Dr Willis, alarmingly forthright in his proto-psychiatric treatment of the King, (pointing up that he was just a man), in the second half, Debra Gillett’s devoted Queen Charlotte, Louise Jameson’s callous Dr Warren, Nicholas Bishop’s morose Pitt, Amanda Hadingue’s presumptuous Fox and Will Scolding’s nincompoop Prince Regent all caught the eye, but all eyes were on Mr Gatiss. As you might expect the comedy flowed easy for him: but better still was the way he caught the pathos of the king as he was plunged into a mania which he could not control but which he understood. “I am not going out of my mind, my mind is going out of me”. The production also doesn’t hold back from showing the physical pain that was inflicted on him by doctors who didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Mr Gattis’s detailing of the King’s speech, tics, convulsions and agonies is mesmerising. Adam Penford was keen to offer a more sympathetic, and contemporary reading, of the King’s mental illness and to avoid seeing his behaviour solely through the lens of humour. Thanks to Mark Gattis’s performance he certainly succeeded. 

History play, political drama, comedy. tragedy? This production makes the case for all of these in a forthright way. Thank you Nottingham Playhouse. I’ll be back. 

The League of Gentlemen Live Again! at the O2 Arena review ****

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The League of Gentlemen Live Again!

O2 Arena London, 23rd September 2018

The Tourist really dislikes the O2 Arena. Awful sound, brutal lighting, terrible sightlines, cavernous, uncomfortable seats, no water, sh*te loos. Pretty much pointless choosing to “see” anything there. Still sometimes, as here, you have no choice.

And this, to repeat,was the League of Gentlemen, in the flesh. Mandatory. So off we trooped the SO, BD, LD and a couple more “local people” (really). Thanks to a cavalier approach to timing from yours truly, reasoning nothing ever starts on time there (this did), and a bloody ridiculous trek all the way round the Arena to get back to where started from for our allotted entrance, we snuck in late.

Still pretty easy to get into the swing of things with Go Johnny Go Go Go first up. The first half sees our three heroes in evening dress running through some classic sketches with blackouts whilst the furniture was re-arrranged. The second half is more ambitious with set and costume changes, with assistance from pre-recorded video to brings things together, (and get characters on and off stage). Now I am going to assume that you are either a fan or not. Either way there would be no point in my rabbiting on about the detail of the evening’s proceedings. Some sketches and sequences worked better than others, the same way that some characters make some of us laugh more than some others. For me the highlights were Legz Akimbo, (with Reece Shearsmith at his bitter best in Olly Plimsolls), Pop (especially when Steve Pemberton goaded Shearsmith into corpsing), Mordant Mick and Herr Lipp. Especially Herr Lipp with a bit of audience participation. For BD it was probably Edward and Tubbs, complete with musical theatre number, for LD it was Pauline and for the SO, as it always has been, it was Pam Doove.

That is the way it has always been. I get that some find LoG dark and disturbing. Not me. Though the third series does get a little weird I accept. The SO kept BD, and then LD, away from Royston Vasey for many years until they were “ready” and MS said he found it a bit scary at first. Just as well then I wasn’t in charge of their viewing as to me it is just funny.

What is interesting in seeing the LoG now, in this live show and in the recent three new episodes, after some sixteen years since the original three TV series’ came out, is not how grotesque it is, too much exposure to think that, but actually how direct it is. Not the often unreconstructed nature of the comedy, that was part of the point, but actually how rooted in comedy history so many of the set ups are. Which is what makes it so funny. An absurdly camp German trotting out a string of preposterous double entendres is not radical in any way. It is though one of the funniest things I have ever seen. The dark heart of comedy I suppose.

Now we know that Messrs Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith, and, in his own way the silent partner, Jeremy Dyson, have all gone on to copious writing and performing success, on big and small screen and on stage, and in other guises. They are all brilliant in their very different ways. Which means that this is not some desperate revival show done for cash. And they were never going to dash off any old tosh. Way too clever for that. They all look like they are having a ball in the show but I have to say that Steve Pemberton, who let’s face it always nabbed the best of the grotesques, had the most presence.

Special stuff.