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Review of ‘The Lion in Winter’

by Steve Williams

It is Christmas 1183 and we are in the court of the Plantagenet King, Henry II, at a tense and trying time. Henry is hosting the newly crowned King Philip of France and is keen to form an alliance before he relinquishes his crown to one of his sons. The problem for the King is that none of the sons would accept any of the others as King and are all intent on taking the crown for themselves. To add to Henry’s woes, his wife, the richest woman in the world, Queen Eleanor of Aquitane, has been imprisoned for raising her own army against him and is only released from her incarceration during holidays and she is equally devious in trying to get her favourite to succeed her husband. The final fly in the ointment is Henry’s mistress, Alais, who is in love with the ageing king but discovers that he intends to marry her, Alais, off to one of his sons whilst also intending to keep her as his mistress!

The action of the play is set against this background and could be described as a “kitchen sink” drama rather than a serious, historically accurate play. The play was written by an American, James Goldman, and was aimed predominantly at an American audience whose knowledge of 12th century England was limited so historical accuracy was not an important factor in the writing of the play. And it was the writing that left me a little non-plussed. It is not a play I have seen before so I was coming to it ‘cold’ with no real expectations but, by the end, I couldn’t really work out whether Goldman was trying to write a funny play about a historical figure or a serious play with comedic moments and unfortunately I didn’t come away with an answer to that question!

The writing aside though the BLT production did provide for an entertaining evening with some enjoyable performances. As Henry’s mistress, Alais, Alice Butler gave a fine portrayal of a coquettish young girl keen to keep hold of her powerful lover but betrayed by his royal machinations. This was Alice’s debut at BLT and I look forward to seeing her onstage again very soon. As Henry II, Patrick Neylan provided some memorable moments, particularly when Henry was at his most sarcastic and scheming but I felt he lacked some of the power Henry needed in his scenes with King Philip and when goading his sons into picking up the knife to kill him in one of the latter scenes. He needed to be a terrifying character at that moment and the reason none of the boys kill him is because they fear him.

With his long, flowing locks and powerful physique Daniel Pabla presented the physical embodiment of one of history’s favourite future kings, Prince Richard (Richard the Lionheart). For such a big man though I was struggling at times to hear him which was a shame. Luke McGuire was wonderful as the toady Prince Geoffrey. Geoffrey flitted between the brothers and Eleanor trying to convince them all he was on their side whilst actually working against them all to try to seize the crown for himself. This was an assured performance from a fine actor. The other, equally famous future interregnum monarch, Prince John, was played by Alfie Gosling who was equally at home on the stage.

Queen Eleanor, played by Samantha Barass, is a difficult character to play. We should feel sorry for her on the one hand as she is almost permanently incarcerated, but we should never lose sight of the fact that it was her plotting and duplicitousness (not to mention raising an army against her husband!) that got her into that position in the first place. Samantha gave us all of that in a very confident and nuanced performance. Finally, there is the outsider, the guest at the feast, King Philip of France. I was pleased that there was no attempt by the Director to differentiate him by giving him a French accent (which would have been tempting – though in reality they would all have been speaking French in any case!) as that would have become a parody. James Insley was excellent as the young King, showing us his confusion at Henry’s erratic behaviour but also totally believable in his negotiations with the Princes to embark on a staged war with Henry.

Jan Greenhough designed a relatively bare but perfectly functional set which represented both the castle and the dungeon. However, there were a number of scene changes where the tapestries were moved to show we were in different parts of the castle. I was disappointed that each time we moved areas the theatre curtains were brought down and we sat in darkness whilst the scene changed. I didn’t think it was necessary to do that, it broke up the action of the play and it would have been perfectly acceptable for the cast  to move the tapestries as part of the action or isolate the dungeon area by lighting a small section of the stage to one side to tell the audience where we were. Something that the lighting designer, Emma Christmas is more than capable of achieving and I was sad that she wasn’t given that challenge.

There was, however, one small niggle I had with one scene as far as the lighting is concerned and I would suggest it is likely to have been a technical issue on the night I saw the play knowing Emma’s expertise. In the first scene Henry delivered a longish speech from the front corner of the stage but he was almost entirely in a “dark spot” which I am sure was not planned but it meant he could not really be seen properly and detracted from his speech. The sound design by Dave Jones was well judged and didn’t intrude upon the action.

The play was directed by Stevie Hughes and, as I mentioned earlier, he gave us an entertaining evening which, from the audience reaction I heard, was very well received.