King of Hearts, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London London Review
King of Hearts

If I burdened you with every unfortunate liaison that occurs in the royal family, you wouldn't have time to run the country.
---- Sir Terence Pitch to the Prime Minister
King of Hearts
Christian Brassington as Prince Arthur and Ben Righton as Prince Richard (Photo: John Haynes)

Alistair Beaton's new comedy King of Hearts centres on the predicament faced by the Royal Family when the heir to the throne falls in love with a beautiful, intelligent girl who also happens to be a Muslim. The political powers who are gathered to switch off the dying king's life support machine, make the discovery that the man who is to be king in a few hours time may not be eligible to be leader of the Church of England. Beaton's writing is mostly biting satire: a prime minister Nick, (Justin Salinger) who is willing to time the switching off of the life support to the best political advantage so as to push another embarrassing story off the front pages of the Sunday papers. A chief of palace security (Anthony O'Donnell), who in a controlled explosion blows up the heir to the throne's girlfriend's luggage thinking she's a terrorist bomber. A long serving courtier to the dying king, Sir Terence Pitch (Alister Cameron) who says to the Prime Minister, "What do you know of loyalty?" The pace is hectic as the political advisers manoeuvre to keep a grip on events.

But King of Hearts isn't just fast paced, bad taste, foul mouthed terribly funny comedy. There are also some more serious moments in Beaton's play which sit uncomfortably on top of the satire. Would it really be a disaster for the monarch to convert to Islam? The delightfully scatty Archbishop of Canterbury (Roddy Maude-Roxby) suggests as a solution that the monarch should be separated from his function as the head of the Church but this is dismissed out of hand by the politicians. Annie (Caroline Loncq) the Prime Minister's closest adviser says of the wonderfully doleful Archbishop, "Only the Church of England would see narcolepsy as a recommendation for high office". "Multicultural Britain!" says the Prime Minister, "Who needs it?" In the second act, the implications of an Islamic state are worrying for the feminist Annie and for gay aide Toby (Toby Dantzic) both of whom fear fundamentalism so the plot turns to incorporate a potential "gay" scandal involving the leader of the Opposition.

The acting performances are top drawer— from Ben Righton's quite serious authentic Prince Richard, polite, hands in pockets, blazer and chinos and uncompromising as only youth can be, to Justin Salinger's splendid weasel like Prime Minister who has more switching moves than a chameleon. I liked too the dotty Archbishop and Alister Cameron's mesmerising stiff anachronism of a palace servant. Jeff Rawle too complements as the leader of the Opposition, in a performance where he is often the victim of a joke. Zahra Ahmadi's Nasreen has a rather humourless and unsympathetic part as Beaton exposes her motives to be as much naked ambition as devotion and love.

Tim Shortall's set is a perfectly swagged Sandringham country house sitting room from the Royals' country retreat in Norfolk, just one of the details which are recognisable. Coming from the Out of Joint stables, Max Stafford-Clark has been ill and shares the direction with Ramin Gray but together they time the laughs to thoroughbred perfection. In some ways, this play complements Helen Mirren's Oscar winning film The Queen. Here the Royals are shown sympathetically, it is the politicians who are hopelessly lampooned. I hope that King of Hearts will get a transfer to the West End as a larger audience could really enjoy the cutting humour and this reviewer would like to see more new play writing of the calibre of Alistair Beaton gracing Shaftesbury Avenue.

Written by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Ramin Gray and Max Stafford-Clark

Starring: Justin Salinger, Jeff Rawle
With: Zahra Ahmadi, Christian Brassington, Alister Cameron, Toby Dantzic, Caroline Loncq, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Anthony O'Donnell, Ben Righton
Set Design: Tim Shortall
Lighting: Johanna Town
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Presented in association with the Out of Joint and Sonia Friedman Productions
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 31st March 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 6th March 2007 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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