Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Adam Penford
Reviewer: Dave Smith
As Adam Penford’s first season at the helm of Nottingham Playhouse draws to a close, there seems to be a new air of confidence about the place. And what better way to cement that than with a revival of one of Britain’s more celebrated playwright’s more celebrated plays, featuring the sort of cast you’d normally find in the West End?
With the production also scheduled for broadcast to over 700 UK cinemas (and many more worldwide) on 20 November as part of the NT Live programme (a first for the Playhouse), it’s probably the most high profile show the theatre has seen in years. The stakes are high, but it’s safe to say that Penford has pulled it off splendidly, rounding off a very impressive first year with a considerable flourish.
It’s 1788. The American War of Independence is still fresh in the mind – although best not mentioned – and revolution is also now stirring across the Channel. Meanwhile, after 28 years on the throne, King George III’s mind is coming apart and his behaviour ever more erratic. As doctors subject him to increasingly bizarre and unpleasant ‘cures’, the Queen and Prime Minister Pitt the Younger try to conceal his condition while power struggles erupt in the background. Can a cure be found before the Prince of Wales is declared Regent, locks his father away in a madhouse never to be seen again, removes Pitt from office and thus threatens the economic future of the nation? The stakes are high…
The functionaries, princes and ministers at an 18th-century court were there to please the king and were, to all intents and purposes, nothing to him and nothing without him. You could say the same about the majority of the cast in The Madness of George III. This is a play written for one actor to dominate the stage, chew the scenery and show what they can do and for everyone else to just get on and help them do it.
That might sound disrespectful to the rest of the cast, but that ‘star’ performance cannot happen or work without them (you could, of course, also work this analogy back to the 18th-century court, if you wanted). And the cast do their duty very well. Debra Gillett as Queen Charlotte (playing opposite a disintegrating king for the second time this year after her stint in Exit the King at the National) is an endearing and affectionate consort, while Adrian Scarborough and Nicholas Bishop (as Dr Willis and William Pitt respectively) are suitably dour yet determined to ensure they prevail against considerable odds.
Meanwhile, Adam Penford has made the interesting decision to cast women in many of the traditionally male roles (Nadia Albina as Captain Fitzroy, Louise Jameson as Dr Warren, Stephanie Jacob as Dr Baker and Amanda Hadingue as Charles Fox). Fear not, this is no political statement or conceit because, once you notice it’s happening, it almost immediately becomes irrelevant and it all works just fine (very much like the current Dr Who, in fact).
If there’s one weak point, it’s that Wilf Scolding as the Prince of Wales is just a bit too Hugh Laurie in Blackadder III. Kudos, though, to Harry Kershaw as his younger brother the Duke of York who – despite having almost no lines – manages to portray privileged stupidity perfectly by doing next to nothing other than puffing determinedly and almost continuously on a pipe and yet still managing to deliver this reviewer’s favourite line of the whole evening.
But in the end, it’s all about George and his descent into madness, and Mark Gatiss really doesn’t let us down. It’s a properly superb and captivating performance that deserves the far wider audience it will get on November 20 and suggests he has the potential to become a true star of the British stage.
It’s not a perfect production by any means – the set is neither the smoothest nor the grandest you’ll ever see. Nor is it Alan Bennett’s finest play – the episodic nature of the start makes it a bit slow to get going – but I wouldn’t mind betting that he still occasionally wakes up chuckling at his own Piss the Younger and Piss the Older joke.
Runs Until 24 November 2018 | Image: Nottingham Playhouse