REVIEW: Never So Good @ The People’s Theatre
By Grace Cook on October 11, 2012 in Stage
British government in the present day is a joke at the best of times: the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer apparently don’t know the price of milk, and Nick Clegg is basically the Tinky Winky of Downing Street, minus a patent red handbag.
Howard Brenton’s Never So Good, however, examines British politics at a time when politicians and Prime Ministers were respected, not ridiculed. The four-act play is a portrait of the life of Harold Macmillan, Conservative PM, and documents his introduction into the Grenadier Guards to his early resignation in 1963.
Set against the backdrop of a fading British Empire, two world wars and the Suez crisis, the play opens with a retired Macmillan (Gordon Russell) stating the importance of good teeth in politics. The action then switches to a young Macmillan (Sean Burnside) in battle in the First World War, where he obtained several injuries and was lucky to escape death: a fact Macmillan found difficult to accept, and as a result carried the heavy burden of his survival around with him for the rest of his life. This is played out ever so cleverly with the directing of Howard Brenton, and the young Macmillan (Burnside) becomes a constant on-stage presence, acting as Macmillan’s subconscious and subsequently becoming narrator: Macmillan almost separates himself entirely from his experiences in battle, highlighting the need for two characters to portray this highly complex character.
The play documents the changing prime ministers, from Neville Chamberlain to Winston Churchill, the threat from the ‘charismatic’ Hitler and the changing relationship between Britain and America and indeed the rest of Europe. Politics, both in past and present, is very much a game of cat and mouse, and the lack of trust between party members is highlighted through underhand alliances and double crosses.
However, in this male dominated world, the importance of female characters is notable: Karen Elliot is amazing as Macmillan’s nagging, sharp-tongued mother, and Moira Valentine is wonderful as his political ally and advisor, despite having an adulterous affair with ‘Bob’ Boothby, who would later become PM.
With a set consisting of a few antique tables and chairs, the play is accompanied musically by hymns such as Jerusalem, and later, hits from the 1940’s and ‘50’s to highlight the shift in time. Brenton’s play is a portrait of a brilliantly complex individual; an old Etonian who eventually loses touch with society due to his inability to comprehend shifting values, and both Russell and Burnside are absolutely outstanding.
The People’s Theatre continually impresses me with its amateur productions, and the cast and crew really have to be applauded for yet another on-stage success. Just like Britain in Macmillan’s day, the audience never had it so good.
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