Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Scandalous Life and Fast Times of Lord Byron – Leicester Square Theatre, London

Writer: Paul Huntley-Thomas
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

LordByron is as famous for his personal life as he is for his poetry and the things we think we know about him suggest a life of dissolution and endless debauchery. Yet, at the same time, he endured considerable suffering during his lifetime that found an outlet in the 19th Century’s second wave of Romantic poetry.

Paul Huntley-Thomas brings the two sides of Byron together in a strange one-man cabaret performance,Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know,which has a short run at the Leicester Square Theatre.

As the audience take their seats, Byron is propping up the bar and leaving the house lights up so he can prowl around, ends up standing on a chair reciting some of his shorter poems. This, however, is not the Byron you’d imagine; instead, he’s world-weary, self-pitying and frustrated by the fame he has acquired, which he feels has distorted his story. In under 45 minutes, Byron reflects on his many lovers, the death of his friends and hints at some of his political views while offering up a few choice poetry readings as part of his “contract”.

This show feels more like a ‘turn’ at a wedding than a theatre performance, an idea borne out by the card on each chair allowing you to ‘book Lord Byron for your soiree’. There’s a fair amount of reasonable non-threatening audience interaction and Paul Huntley-Thomas as Byron manages the odd heckle pretty well, but this not a piece with anything particular to say. Most of the stories are well-known; the bear at Cambridge, the affair with Caroline Lamb and the ghost story competition that led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, and while Byron mopes about misattributed celebrity, he admits to doing almost all the things he’s known for.

There are things to enjoy and Huntley-Thomas gives some emotional depth while discussing the death of Byron’s friends at Cambridge from consumption and drowning, as well as that of his good friend Shelley and daughter Allegra. The poetry readings too are also pretty good giving great expression to the contrasting drama and romance of his various works – if he had just read the poems for 45 minutes this show wouldn’t have been any worse for it.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is really a one-trick-pony, entirely based on the joke of having Byron himself in the room to regale your party guests with his saucy tales. For this to work as theatre more thought needs to be given to the overall point being made here – for example about modern celebrity – and how the context of Byron’s life fed into the poems he created and would help to more fully unite the two halves of this performance.

Runs until 28 May | Image: Contributed

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