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Review Round-up: Did Lion Dent Nunn's Pride?

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Trevor Nunn's revival of The Lion in Winter by James Goldman opened to critics last night (15 November, previews from 5 November) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the final production in Nunn's year-long tenure as artistic director of the venue.

Made famous by the 1968 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, The Lion in Winter puts Henry II centre stage as he considers his successors as King of England.

He gathers his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitane, and his three sons to spend the season with him along with his mistress Princess Alais and her brother, causing a normally joyous holiday to turn the family against one another.

Starring Robert Lindsay as Henry II and Joanna Lumley as Eleanor, The Lion in Winter continues at the Haymarket until 28 January 2012.

Michael Coveney

"As a play that doggedly refuses to bare its teeth, The Lion in Winter is more like a lambkin in spring ... Lindsay opts for the sardonic approach and, despite deploying his always impressive full vocal range, he astonishes me most by being so boring ... Miss Lumley, fragrantly elegant as ever, looks as though she’s just stopped by from a Bond Street beauty parlour en route to a fancy dress competition ... What happens? Very little, and the play, which bristles with a job lot of funny lines that aren’t actually funny, expires slowly around its perpetrators until it stops in a fractious stalemate. By which time one has rather tired of admiring Stephen Brimson Lewis’ beautiful set of receding grey arches and seasonal decorations. Mind you, the evening did not start well in offering a view of the inert stone effigies of Henry and Eleanor followed by several projected paragraphs of historical scene-setting. Come on, folks, this is a theatre, not a lecture hall: if you can’t act it, cut it ... Robert Lindsay electrified Martin Sherman’s Onassis with his performance as the monstrous Greek shipping magnate, but seems in no mood to pull the stops out here. And Joanna Lumley doesn’t so much perform as deliver a judicious selection of poses and pronouncements that seem strangely unequal to her brittle talent."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"This revival of James Goldman’s creaky but still enjoyable play ... has been brilliantly timed for the festive season ... it’s historical hokum but high-class hokum, stylishly designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, and much funnier on stage than in the overblown film. Here, an almost Black Adder-ish atmosphere prevails, along with melodramatic, carpet-chewing performances that seem deliberately designed to provoke titters rather than awe. For once that solemn, beard-stroking director Trevor Nunn seems to be having a bit of fun ... the comedy becomes particularly piquant when it emerges that the macho Richard the Lionheart, all bristling aggression in Tom Bateman’s performance, has been having a gay fling with the French monarch. But what really powers the play is the relationship between Herny II and his once beloved Queen, and Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley don’t disappoint ... Lindsay is in terrific form, despite a worrying mullet hairstyle, dominating the stage with a mixture of rage and engaging wit. She movingly suggests a woman all too well aware that she is past her prime ... The play itself may be a touch arthritic but when Lindsay and Lumley are tearing chunks out of each other, it still packs a powerful punch."

Michael Billington

"Trevor Nunn's tenure at the Haymarket has given us fine revivals of Rattigan, Stoppard and Shakespeare. What puzzles me is why Nunn, with all the riches of world drama at his disposal, should dredge up this Broadway hokum by James Goldman. It may have made a tolerable movie in 1968 but, seen on stage, it looks hollow and meretricious ... The key to historical drama is some purchase on the present: true of everything from Brecht to Bolt. But, though Goldman's marital slugfest has echoes of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to a contemporary audience it has little relevance. Goldman's solution is dialogue with joky, anachronistic modernity to persuade us these Plantagenet plotters are just like us ... In the end, the play is an exhibition bout for actors. There is a genuine pleasure in watching Robert Lindsay at work as Henry II: a resonant voice, heroic swagger, and capacity to invest even Goldman's slick dialogue with emotion ... Joanna Lumley also does a good job as Eleanor. Although compared to Medea, Medusa and Circe, Lumley seems more angry pussycat than classical tigress; but she does deliver Goldman's one-liners with the right snap, crackle and pop, and suggests a devious mind at work. Amongst the sons, Joseph Drake stands out, while Sonya Cassidy lends the mistress a delicately erotic presence. But, although Nunn directs the whole event with great efficiency, one is left wondering why he bothered ... All one gets is some high-grade performances in a play that, in its relentless jokiness, might be dubbed 1183 And All That."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley are evidently enjoying themselves in this revival of James Goldman's 1966 play ... The chemistry between them is satisfying. But the writing, for all its verve and seasonal spirit, feels glib ... The wranglings that result are at times amusing. We are meant to gather that despite the gap of more than 800 years, these 12th century dignitaries are much like us. That is questionable but it is the occasion for some lively, flippant comedy that has more than a whiff of Blackadder about it - while also recalling the feverish tensions of sitcom ... The politics of family life are conveyed mainly through set pieces. There are zingy lines ('What shall we hang - the holly or each other?', asks Henry) but the ironies and rhetorical switchbacks do not afford much sense of either character or dramatic urgency. Lindsay cuts a dash. It is not the first time he has played Henry II, having portrayed him 20 years ago in Becket. Here he is charismatic and fluent. Lumley does a very fine job of undercutting her regal diction with a far-from-queenly demeanour and there is convincing support from Drake, Bateman and Norton, as well as Sonya Cassidy and Rory Fleck-Byrne. Trevor Nunn directs unfussily and the design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is elegant. Yet while The Lion In Winter is an inoffensive star vehicle, funny enough to sustain interest, it is hard to see why it warrants a revival."

Libby Purves
The Times

"If it sounds like an EastEnders script pluckily attempting the sourness of Edward Albee and the intricacy of Iris Murdoch, you’re not far off ... Although sumptuously set by Stephen Brimson Lewis amid arches, tapestries, and artfully revolving medieval furniture, there are no servants or courtiers, and the royal couple deck their own holly. Robert Lindsay is Henry, his flowing locks and air of command spookily reminiscent of the director Trevor Nunn himself, and Joanna Lumley the estranged queen. But visually lovely as it is, the play is clunky: its sharper lines drowned in verbosity unable to settle on being history, black comedy or just a 12th-century version of Private Lives, with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine as an ageing Elyot and Amanda. Worse, there is no believable emotional line for Eleanor. Lumley is tremendous at ranting, comedy and deliberate bathos ... But her moments of weakness and dismay are too controlled, too steely; and in her borderline incestuous relationship with Richard there is something just too wholesome. It is comic loucheness that this actress can peerlessly convey, not depravity. When she reminisces about first meeting Henry ... she carries an almost frighteningly sporty conviction. Lindsay, though, is at times genuinely moving in his weary ageing determination ... The play’s faults make it a frustrating evening, for all the talent poured into it. But it was a treat to see young Joseph Drake again ... Now that I did enjoy."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"National treasure she may be, but is Joanna Lumley a top stage actress? Not on the evidence of last night when, alongside Robert Lindsay, she laboured her way through James Goldman’s cod-historical 1966 play The Lion In Winter. In part it is playwright Goldman’s fault. This 1966 play is a strange mish-mash ... But The Lion In Winter is not Spamalot (more’s the pity). It tries to chart the rivalries of the princes and the king and queen ... All their plots and politicking, which become tiresomely convoluted, are meant to show us Henry and Eleanor as devilish chess players. Miss Lumley does everything at the same tempo, the same heat. What a two-dimensional disappointment. Mr Lindsay, cursed by a wig which is almost Planet Of The Apes bad, does his best to keep the show boiling. It’s not his fault that it fails. The set is ersatz Plantaganet pile, monumental pillars and clerestories and wine goblets like something from the Hollywood of 50 years ago. Sir Trevor Nunn, who perhaps fancies himself a Henry II, directs."

- Natalie Generalovich


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