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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre (Lyttelton)

By Matt Wolf

  Jeremy Irons and Anna Chancellor/Ph: Alastair Muir

That onetime Socialist firebrand, Howard Brenton, is back with a long and surprisingly lively theatrical account of the onetime Conservative party leader, Harold Macmillan, whose 1957 catchphrase most of our people have never had it so good gives Howard Davies's animated staging its title. One always has to wonder in bioplays such as this one as to the dramatist's point of departure: what is it about the Eton-educated Supermac -as he was dubbed by the Daily Express - that has ignited the imaginations of Brenton, whose own erstwhile fondness for shock value here gives way to a fundamentally sympathetic portrait of a Prime Minister (Macmillan held that office from 1957 to 1963) living almost in the shadow of himself? Some kind of answer is seemingly present in a remark from Robert Glenister's Bob Boothby - the bisexual lover of Macmillan's aristocratic wife, Dorothy (Anna Chancellor) - about morally deficient times need[ing] a new kind of leader. Ain't that the truth?

Of course, there may be those in the Lyttelton auditorium who are there for an entirely different reason, and that is to witness a top-drawer National Theatre debut from none other than Jeremy Irons, here following on from his recent West End turn in Embers in what would appear to be a spate of old-man roles that are surely being tackled well before time. No matter: though Irons went down for the count in the entirely untheatrical Embers, he's in superb form as Macmillan, the actor's own kindly-eyed questioning and drollery perfectly attuned to this cane-wielding, patrician statesman, who is more often than not glimpsed in conflict with one family member or another - usually a domineering American mother (Anna Carteret, sporting what sounds more like an Irish accent) - or, as is Brenton's conceit, in fraught discussion with his own self. As if taking a leaf from Tom Stoppard's A.E. Housman bioplay, The Invention of Love, which adopts a similarly binary approach, the ageing Macmillan paces nearly three hours in vexed conversation with his younger self, a device that runs out of steam fairly fast, though Pip Carter is always watchable as that shrewd, often stoic, possibly gay politician-in-the-making. Separately and together, the two actors present an unexpectedly sweet portrait of a fighter in the First World War who talks of the difficulty in putting gas masks on over his glasses - and who received no less than five wounds in combat, one of which resulted in the flabby handshake that some decades later was mocked by Peter Cook during Beyond the Fringe.

I doubt too many of today's statesmen - if that word even still applies - could boast of having read Aeschylus in a foxhole, and Never So Good is bracing not least in the levels of intelligence that once could be taken to be the political norm. It's not surprising, in context, to discover that the young Harold, an avid classicist,thought of being a publisher, like his father, before Eton led to Oxford and on to a lifelong quest toward his mother's beloved it: a sense of occupying and making the most of the center of experience, even as Macmillan worries aloud about seeming decent but dull, condemned to the sidelines. Across the decades, various historical events are ticked off, from Neville Chamberlain's celebrated remark about peace in our time through to Hitler - whom Macmillan's mother supported, notwithstanding his hairy wrists - and on to the Suez debacle and a special (or not) relationship with America, here cannily embodied by Clive Francis's raspy,bespectacled Eisenhower.



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