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Alistair Beaton is a very astute and funny writer (he wrote the superb comedy Feelgood), but this new political comedy never gets off the ground. It certainly tackles crucial topical issues – the confusions and complexities of multi-cultural Britain, the limits to tolerance, the contradictory attitudes towards the monarchy – and it does so with admirable audacity. But the comedy is too broad and blunt, and, despite the considerable energy of the production, the evening generates few real laughs.
We are in contemporary Britain, but a contemporary Britain in which a king is on the throne. We never learn his name, but he does happen to have two sons, the heir to the throne (Richard), who is a handsome, sensible chap, and the younger son (Arthur), who is a bit of a lad. This may sound vaguely familiar. The prime minister (Justin Salinger) meanwhile wears a fixed grin and an air of desperation; the leader of the opposition (Jeff Rawle) is a nice bloke who stands for nothing very much at all. This too.
We join them all at a crisis. The king has fallen off his horse and is near to death. In a gracious room in Sandringham, the prime minister and his aides feverishly debate what time to switch off the life support in order to get the best headlines. But when Prince Richard arrives and declares his intention to marry a Muslim, the focus of the panic shifts. While the leader of the opposition flirts with the idea of playing a Muslim monarchy to his advantage, the prime minister goes pop-eyed with horror and announces that “tolerance needs a little holiday”.
Beaton opens a big can of very juicy worms, which is to the good, but the problem is that, having done so, he gets stuck in a rather tired farcical mode. This could all be very interesting if it were debated with more subtlety, but by and large the play is too busy bashing the slipperiness of power-crazed politicians to get anywhere. And even for satire the characters are surprisingly clichéd. The cast in the production by Max Stafford-Clark and Ramin Gray inject plenty of vitality, but can’t play what isn’t there. There are flashes of Beaton’s real wit and intelligence, but overall the piece doesn’t live up to the promise of its premise.
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