ENTERTAINING AND SURPRISINGLY FUNNY
THE LION IN WINTER
at The Pumphouse, Takapuna, Auckland
Reviewed by Adey Ramsel, 1 Jun 2012
Theatre on Auckland’s North Shore has, over time, ranged from large-scale shows or cabaret at the Bruce Mason Theatre to smaller plays and am-dram shows at the Pumphouse. Now Tadpole Productions have launched themselves on the scene: a pro company resident at the beautiful Pumphouse, promising two plays and a musical each year.
The Lion in Winter may seem a strange choice to launch a company, being neither a home-grown classic nor a particularly well-known play, but the film did make a splash in its day, with its big-name cast and slew of Oscars. The West End revival occurred last year so maybe its day has returned.
With all the political machinations around the world at present it’s an inspired decision to set the play in 2012. Surprisingly nothing dates this play, indeed the dialogue could have been written yesterday with its freshness being a welcome surprise. The cast of seven squeeze every innuendo and nuance out of the quick-fire script and deliver it well.
Erroll Shand as Henry II is impressive. A true lion right down to the well-groomed mane, he owns the stage from the opening line. The stage comes alive when Shand enters and it did cross my mind that this is a Henry I’d love to see in Beckett. Matched with sparring partner Louise Wallace, the pair is a delight to watch as they score points off each other. Wallace plays his imprisoned wife Eleanor with an ice-cold sex appeal that you could imagine bordering on dominatrix.
The rest of the cast do well but struggle a little to compete with the two leads.
Elliot Wrightson as Prince Richard is the most convincing; a black-clad, pistol-wielding bad boy whom you can imagine becoming the Lionheart. Prince Geoffrey is the odd one out, written out of history and virtually out of the action on stage by his ‘behind the scenes’ plotting. Alex Walker does what he can, bringing a sharp suit and lofty sneer to bear on the proceedings.
Daniel Bonner’s Prince John comes across as a caricature of the future King John of Robin Hood legend; a spoilt, spiteful, brooding, petulant schoolboy who hunts with the hounds and runs with the foxes. Bonner looked uncomfortable at times in his persona and obvious make up but does very well in keeping John on the side of believable coward. He keeps a steady control on a character that could easily slip into farcical panto villain.
Emma Fenton as Princess Alais and Brendan Lovell as her brother King Philip of France have to compete for attention against the family bickering but show professionalism in their smaller roles. Lovell keeps a steady hand on his comic timing, only occasionally rushing the effect.
The overall sense of a family at war is evident, though the swift action when the power changes hands on almost every page is slightly lost, especially towards the end where there is no clear definition between scenes save for a change of furniture.
The set works and it is well-dressed, classic and simple but I found myself wanting more. Lighting by Scott Thomas delivers well in atmosphere but it would have been nice to have the set help him more. A brushstroke of set can work wonders but with the changing power struggle and moods, and the descent of the play from bedroom down to the dungeon, it would have been nice to match the plot twists with a little more claustrophobia and positioning, and less use of the stage as a whole entity.
Underlying the scenes is an excellent original score by Campbell Downie, with a mix of Gregorian-chant-meets-rap. This play illustrates well what a small professional company can do: a well crafted production of an entertaining and surprisingly funny play.
Opening night was busy and I hope the rest of the season is too. It deserves to succeed and I look forward to the next offering from Tadpole.