Never So GoodPosted on: 07 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
The story of Harold Macmillan and Britain's transformation make for an interesting night at the National Theatre.
One of the most significant political figures of the post-war era between the age of austerity and the age of affluence, namely Harold Macmillan, is the subject of Howard Brenton's new play Never So Good, at NT's Lyttleton auditorium, directed by Howard Davies.
Harold Macmillan, the Eton-educated idealist who rushed with Homer's Iliad under his arm to do his duty in the Grenadier Guards, is tormented by the harsh experiences of war and an unhappy marriage. His career in the 30s is blocked by his loyalty to Winston Churchill and he nearly loses his life in the Second World War. When at last he becomes Prime Minister he is brought down by the Profumo scandal.
Set against the backdrop of fading Empire, war, the Suez crisis - the most gripping part - vintage champagne, adultery and vicious Tory politics at the Ritz, the play paints the portrait of a brilliant, witty, but complex man, at times comically and, in the end, tragically out of kilter with his times, as well as telling the story of Britain in the 20th century.
Brenton skilfully manages to mix the intimate with the epic although I felt the second half was the more emotionally involving. Director Howard Davies also manages to introduce some startling theatrical coups, most notably when a sedate dance at the Ritz gradually morphs into the battlefields of the First World War, and later when a Second World War plane crashes, part of the stage seems to burst into flames.
There are, too, some choice snatches of dialogue, as for example when the older Macmillan, looking back on his life, says, "To us the world was a ripening peach and we were eating it," or when his unfaithful wife says "Divorce me," to which Macmillan replies, "No, because it would make it impossible for me to reach high office!"
I admit I had doubts at the beginning whether the idea of having another actor (Pip Carter) to play Macmillan's younger self would work but it proves an effective device, acting as his alter ego throughout the play. For me though the main weakness of the production was a miscast Ian McNeice who makes Churchill seem almost like an overblown caricature.
There is no denying, however, that this is Jeremy Irons's play, not only looking and sounding like Macmillan but marvellously combining charisma with vulnerability and political success with personal hurt. He also captures this quintessential Englishman's humour, intelligence and resilience.
Other fine performances are given by Anna Carteret as his mother, who cauterised her son's early ambition with the taunting prophecy, "You'll never have 'it'," Anthony Calf's pills and drink-dependent Anthony Eden and Terrence Hardiman's spoton Neville Chamberlain.
In all then this is a good, rather than a great, play but one well worth seeing for Jeremy Irons's performance alone.
Plays in repertory until 24th May 2008.
Box office: 020 7451 3000 or: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
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