DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The James Plays – The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

  • James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock
  • James II – Day of The Innocents
  • James III – The True Mirror

Author: Rona Munro
Composers: Paul Leonard-Morgan and Will Gregory
Director: Laurie Sansom
Movement Director: Neil Battles
Musical Director: Alasdair Macrae
Reviewer: Fiona Hannon

The James Plays have been described as Scotland’s answer to Game of Thrones. They aren’t. They’re much, much better. This stunning trilogy tells the story of three generations of Stewart Kings through a largely forgotten part of Scotland’s history.

Each of the individual plays is completely engrossing on its own, and it’s unlikely that anyone who’s seen one wouldn’t want to see more, but to see all three plays in one day is hugely satisfying, like greedily bingeing on a live action box set.

Rona Munro has created a modern masterpiece, absolutely breath-taking from the opening moments to the final bows. Munro’s writing is sharp, fast, funny and completely absorbing. Her audience, by turn, shaking with huge belly laughs, then perfectly still and silent. Her language is thoroughly modern, frequently colourful and always accessible. There are no dusty, dry historical characters in these plays. These are real men, women and children, loud, cruel, frightened, manipulative and very recognisable. The audience connects immediately with the characters and story and is hungry for more.

Director Laurie Sansom has worked wonders staging this epic tale with only 20 performers in a relatively small space. From spectacular fight scenes to intimate conversations, the audience is hanging on every word. The action is fast and ferocious and always pin sharp. The excitement is palpable when James I’s bride-to-be is panicking over her preparations for his arrival and the audience hears the sound of the pipes and drums from outside the auditorium, signalling the Court is here. On-stage seating is provided for those who want a truly immersive experience.

Each of the Kings is excellent and very different. Steven Miller as James I, delivered back to Scotland after 18 years imprisonment in England, is measured, considered, tender yet determined. Andrew Rothney as James II, puppet king to Scotland’s elite, makes the transition from afrightened child, terrified by nightmares, to an assured leader. Matthew Pidgeon’s James III is a spoilt rock star of a man, somewhere between Billy Connolly and Russell Brand, capricious, outrageous and downright badly behaved.

The entire ensemble works incredibly hard with enormous energy and passion, delivering seven and half hours of intense theatre in one day. However, special praise must go to Rosemary Boyle as Joan, wife of James I and as Mary, wife of James II, and to Andrew Still, as William Douglas, cousin of James II and Ross, son of James III. Both these actors are making their professional stage debut and are surely names to watch for the future.

Many have commented that these are the plays that Shakespeare would be writing if he were alive today, and it’s very difficult to argue otherwise. Loud, brash, boisterous and wickedly funny, Scotland’s late medieval history has never been so entertaining. This is first class story telling.

Touring until: 12 June 2016 | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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