Player Kings at the Noël Coward Theatre | Review

Forget historical verisimilitude: Henry IV (Richard Coyle) may have reigned from 1399 to 1413, although the most widely recognised tunes used in Player Kings were ‘God Save The King’, which according to the Royal Family’s own website was “first publicly performed in London in 1745”, and ‘Jerusalem’, the words to which were written in 1804 and the music in 1916. At least we were spared ‘Zadok the Priest’, which is popular but not exactly your reviewer’s favourite Handel tune. The King’s advisers wear contemporary business suits, while the military uniforms are also from the modern era – none of the chain mail seen in the BBC2 television series The Hollow Crown.

Player Kings. Perry Williams (Page, Douglas, Thomas), Clare Perkins (Mistress Quickly) & Ian McKellen (Falstaff). Credit - Manuel Harlan.
Player Kings. Perry Williams (Page, Douglas, Thomas), Clare Perkins (Mistress Quickly) & Ian McKellen (Falstaff). Credit – Manuel Harlan.

With a running time close to four hours and just one interval (Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, would, if every scene were to be included, be closer to five hours, so fair play to the production team for trimming it down) it’s undoubtedly a long evening – according to the performance schedule, there are no two-show days, at least for the West End leg of this touring production. It might have felt a little rushed for some, but I felt the show proceeded at a good pace. The first half, at almost two hours, whizzed by, while the second, shorter as it was, felt somewhat longer. Like practically any movie sequel, Henry IV Part 2 just isn’t as good as Henry IV Part 1.

The Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) was over and done with before the interval, and there wasn’t anything that followed that was as riveting as the battle’s explosions and gunshots. Top billing is given to Sir Ian McKellen as the fictional Sir John Falstaff, who leads Hal, the future Henry V (Toheeb Jimoh) astray – it’s tempting, perhaps, to draw a parallel between ‘Prince Harry’, as the character is listed in the cast list, and a certain other (ex) royal who has also arguably gone rogue. But such links are left to the audience to take or leave, with no strong hints with regards to more recent events either way by the production itself. This is classical theatre performed very well.

As a schoolboy, my classmates and I were told in an English lesson one day that when it came to Shakespeare, it is easy to tell where a scene is and whether it is day or night from the dialogue, with lines such as, “The day begins to break, and night is fled”. Nobody, we were told, walks on stage with a sign saying, “It is now morning”. This production doesn’t demolish that statement, but there are captions from time to time, occasionally providing quite lengthy explanations as to what is going on. It’s one way of making sure everyone is on the same page, I suppose, whilst keeping much of the action centred around McKellen’s Falstaff.

It’s not all about him, and there’s much to discover about Jimoh’s Hal, who eventually dispenses with Falstaff, much to the older man’s chagrin, even if he is not entirely surprised. Falstaff likes to embellish and exaggerate, and this production has Ian McKellen in a fat suit for almost four hours, which is mildly amusing for about five minutes. More entertaining is the banter, some of it coming from Hal too, if only because he can talk candidly with Falstaff in a way in which he can’t with his father King Henry VI. Ultimately, it’s a rewarding experience, bringing some surprising but nonetheless insightful alternative takes on the story as it is usually told.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Hal wasn’t born to be king. Only now, it seems, he will be. His father longs for him to leave behind his friends in the taverns of Eastcheap, most notably the infamous John Falstaff. War is on the horizon. But will Hal ever come good?

Bringing together Shakespeare’s two great history plays (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2), Player Kings will reign over London’s West End for twelve weeks only – playing at the Noël Coward Theatre from April 2024.

Booking to June 22nd, 2024

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