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Review: Three Kings (Old Vic In Camera)

Andrew Scott stars in Stephen Beresford's new play

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Andrew Scott
© Manuel Harlan

What an actor Andrew Scott is! And what a privilege and pleasure it is to watch him in his pomp, in a monologue written especially for him by Stephen Beresford, impeccable in the way he mines every word and thought for each ounce of feeling, humour, and meaning.

In his short introduction to this latest contribution to the Old Vic In Camera series, a set of plays performed live but experienced digitally by a paying audience via Zoom, artistic director Matthew Warchus says that the experience is most like a private rehearsal. But that's not quite right. It feels fully theatrical, as the camera – expertly directed by Warchus himself – takes us close to Scott's mobile face, seeming to pierce the thoughts inside.

It's also – like Brian Friel's Faith Healer, which will be the next Old Vic production in this form – alive with full-realised characters, even though only one person, is telling the story. Here the tale is a sad and piercing one. As it opens Scott's Patrick is recounting the moment when, as an eight year-old, he met the father for whom he is named, for the first time. He is almost overwhelmed by the glamour of the man: the red and gold pack of Dunhill cigarettes, the smell of sandalwood, his corduroy suit and pink tie.

As he retells the meeting, Scott takes on the father's persona as well as the boy's, his barking voice – "Never sit down in a bar" – his dazzling demeanour, the terrible test set for him by the barroom trick with three coins (the three kings of the title). "Aren't you coming back?" his remembered younger self asks poignantly? "Not unless you solve it," drawls his father in reply.

Andrew Scott
© Manuel Harlan

That encounter is just the beginning of a series of terrible betrayals, which destroy the son – and his brother, also called Patrick. "I expect he thought of you as an upgrade," says Scott's Patrick, as he recalls their meeting, many years later. But they also haunt the father, whose destitute final days are vividly conjured.

I kept thinking, as I sat engrossed, of John Le Carré's books about his own conman father: Beresford's play captures the same mixture of longing and despair, the constant flickering hope that things will be different, the crushing realisation of disappointment. His writing is precise and fluent, catching each mood as it swims swiftly by. The coins of the title become a metaphor for the relationships depicted, each affecting the other; the play's plea for forgiveness, for freedom from that generational suffering is acute and profound.

Warchus's direction displays the same imaginative punch, punctuating the action with snatches of music and sound, using the camera as a surrogate viewer, beginning with a tight focus on Scott's hands, moving to his face, splitting the screen into three so we can watch his reactions from different viewpoints, finally – devastatingly – framing him alone.

But it's Scott who, with mercurial intelligence, makes it all work, presenting us with the sardonic carapace of a man infinitely damaged by his father's neglect, but also letting us see the pain and uncertainty underneath, finding moments of theatrical flourish (an elaborate bow, a painful phone conversation) but also intervals of stillness and quiet that are almost unbearable to watch. He's brilliant too at catching the other characters in the story: a kindly neighbour, a bitter ex-girlfriend, his father's last love, his tragic mother. It's a tour de force of the best kind, one that creates empathy and understanding.

The only sadness then, is that there has been so brief a chance to see it: I bought a ticket for the final scheduled performance. Given the paucity of great theatre around at the moment – given the lack of any theatre – it would be brilliant if the Old Vic could bring it back in recorded form, to raise funds. It would lack the charge of a live event, but it would give a wider audience the opportunity to see one of this generation's great actors in his prime.

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