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Michael Coveney: Gyles brings Oscar back to the Cadogan Hotel

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The first act of David Hare's The Judas Kiss, which transfers to the West End from Hampstead early next year, starring Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox, is set in a suite in the Cadogan Hotel in 1895, just after Oscar lost his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry.

Ghosts reassembled last night in the same hotel in Sloane Street when Gyles Brandreth launched his latest lively pastiche novel - Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol - attended by Wilde's only two living descendants, together with the present day governor of the gaol, five actors who have played Oscar Wilde on stage and screen, seven Malvolios (led by Donald Sinden and Jonathan Slinger) and a host of Tory politicians (Michael Howard,John Gummer, Alan Duncan, Eric Pickles), actors and writers, all connected by what Brandreth described as "a golden thread" to the great man.

In the case of disc jockey Mike Read, the thread was perhaps a little frayed, as his Oscar Wilde musical closed after one performance at the Shaw Theatre. But there he was, comparing notes with Stephen Fry and Hugh Bonneville; and schmoozing with Anneka Rice, Joanna Lumley and Patricia Hodge, all of whom, said Brandreth, would be ideal casting for Lillie Langtry, the music hall star and royal mistress who was a great friend of Wilde and coincidentally lived right next door to the Cadogan.

The Cadogan laid on canapes and Perrier-Jouet champagne, Wilde's tipple, and a detail Brandreth got wrong in the first of his six Wilde-flavoured murder mysteries; he had Oscar sipping Dom Perignon but was soon put right by Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, who followed Brandreth with the second witty speech of the evening.

Donald Sinden was sporting a chestful of medals en route to a grand dinner, while Stephen Fry hung about enjoying his second night away from the rigours of rehearsals for Twelfth Night at the Apollo; on Wednesday night he was at Hampstead for Howard Brenton's 55 Days, chuckling away appreciatively at the cut and thrust of the political ferment leading to the execution of King Charles I.

55 Days is an immediate and very strong contender for best new play when the awards season gets going, but it's already too late for the Evening Standard, who had their judges' meeting last week. It would be ironic if they favour James Graham's This House over the Brenton, as both plays deal with the House of Commons and are set very largely within it.  

The difference is that Graham's play is spirited knockabout, a vaudeville really, that throws a certain unfavourable light on the democratic process during a period of political chaos and hung parliaments in the 1970s, while the Brenton, in dealing with a forgotten short period of revolutionary intensity in our constitutional history, has written a robust and reverberating epic, worthy of comparison with Brecht and Shakespeare, that strikes to the heart of our obsession with the monarchy in a parliamentary democracy.

But it's been a very good year for new plays generally, with Brenton challenged by no less than four first-rate Royal Court plays: Caryl Churchill's Love and Information, April de Angelis's Jumpy (probably a best comedy contender), Nick Payne's brilliant, incisive, disarming Constellations (opening next week in the West End) and Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love, a companion piece in the revisionist, slightly reactionary 1960s stakes to Stephen Beresford's debut play at the National, The Last of the Hausmanns.

And tonight we have the new Jez Butterworth at the Court, too, The River, starring Dominic West and Miranda Raison. This is the play you can only book to see on the day of the performance itself - on-line from 9am, and at the box office an hour later - so I guess critics with first night tickets could make a killing in the queue outside and scarper off home with a text...

And such an eventuality, perhaps involving a real-life killing, and shocking skulduggery in the Critics Circle, might provide material for another in Gyles's Oscar series: Oscar Wilde and the Haymarket Hangman, a backstage thriller with, most importantly, another great party in London's most beautiful theatre.


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