Only a master actor like Jeremy Irons could turn a Tory prime minister of lesser regard into a cuddly benevolent - and yet it works so well.
Told as an autobiographical reflection, Never So Good starts as a young Harold Macmillan leaves for the first World War after being expelled from Eton for buggery. Choosing to associate with Catholics and radicals, to the dismay of his domineering society mother, Macmillan is an idealist thrown to the violence and destruction whose legacy still pervades Britain. Wracked by survivor’s guilt, Macmillan’s younger form (Pip Carter) personifies his destroyed idealism through the remainder of the play as the older Macmillan (Irons) enters politics and rises through the ranks of the Conservative party, from his position in Churchill’s cabinet to his eventual succession as Prime Minister despite a cheating wife and orchestrating much of the failed endeavour to reclaim the Suez canal in the 50’s.
As a biography, Never So Good is quite a success - the characters are interesting throughout, and we see the seedier side of the upper classes (always entertaining). As theatre, Never So Good also makes good on its name, as director Howard Davies keeps the play exciting and from feeling its 2 hr 40 minute length, despite telling forty years of story, as it hits only the keynotes and highlights. A certain West End musical which the RZ is set to re-review next week could learn quite the lesson here. Time jumps are represented in musical interludes, as Macmillan goes from party to party and the music and fashions change even if his tux doesn’t. The practice of holding dialogue between younger and older incarnation allows the audience into Macmillan’s thought process in a naturalistic manner.
That said, Irons does take his portrayal a bit far, under-enunciating at times though it is clearly a character choice as it comes and goes depending on if he’s addressing the audience or other characters as his not-much-younger self. A comment at the end that audience members can google a certain internet bookseller for copies of Macmillan’s autobiography is also out of place, and a disappointing way to end an otherwise solid play.
In all, it’s none too surprising that the RZ liked this play given that he reads non-fiction for fun and studied quite a bit of history as an undergrad. While others may be turned off by the work’s subject matter or right wing political leanings (the National being known for generally leaning left-ward), there’s really not much to complain about with this piece. It’s well constructed, mature theatre that makes no aspirations to brilliance but also refuses to compromise its integrity - much like Macmillan himself.
Where: National Theatre/Lyttleton
When: In repertoire until 14 August. Check the website for dates and times.
How Much: £10-£41
Concessions: Day seats and standing room available for £10 when the BO opens, standby for £15 90 min. before the show, student tickets for £10 60 min. before the show.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £30 for a well done, classy piece by the National that sadly falls short of amazingness.
RZ Other Notes: Much of the run is sold out, but tickets do resurface on the National’s website. They’re also not kidding about the quantity or quality of the strobe light and sudden loud noises when issuing warnings, though these affect the two pre-interval acts only.