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A CurtainUp London London Review
Never So Good

Go around the country. . .and you will see. . .most of our people have never had it so good.— Harold Macmillan
Never So Good
Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Howard Brenton made his name in the seventies, alongside the likes of David Hare, David Edgar and Trevor Griffiths, as a political playwright with a left-wing agenda. What is so surprising about his highly entertaining new play is not that it depicts Harold Macmillan, the British Conservative Prime Minister during the 1950s and 1960s, but that it gives such a sympathetic portrait of this Old School Tory. Either Brenton has mellowed into nostalgia in his later years, or for his generation the self-deprecating, paternalistic Macmillan represents a more acceptable face of right-of-centre politics than the thrusting figures who have pushed themselves to the top since the Thatcher era.

Whatever Brenton's viewpoint, he has now delivered a trilogy of ambitious historical dramas, which by turns are intellectually stimulating, emotionally engaging and frequently funny. Following on from Paul, his play about the Christian saint, and In Extremis, an account of the famous medieval theological lovers Abelard and Heloise, Never So Good is a compelling chronicle of Macmillan's long and eventful life in which he was closely connected to many of the most significant moments in twentieth-century British history.

We follow him from his privileged young life at school in Eton and university at Oxford, to the appalling experience of fighting in the trenches in World War I (where he was wounded on five occasions), which heavily influenced his "Middle Way", compassionate Conservatism. While his personal life was marred by his aristocratic wife Lady Dorothy's lifelong affair with the Tory politician Bob Boothby, Macmillan's political career eventually took off under Winston Churchill's premiership during World War II (during which he survived a plane crash). He succeeded Anthony Eden as Prime Minister in 1957 after the Suez War fiasco but was forced to resign after the John Profumo sex scandal in 1963.

Although Brenton's dramatic approach to this historical narrative is somewhat conventional, he has hit on the wonderful idea of having both the older Macmillan (Jeremy Irons) and the younger Macmillan (Pip Carter) on stage at the same time. The play is presented as the old man looking back on his life, first from the sidelines as his younger self takes the limelight, and then later their roles are reversed as Macmillan ages. The two Macmillans often interact, with the younger one representing a more idealistic, dynamic persona, while the older one is more pragmatic and world-weary, as he rationalizes his experiences — though he cannot subdue completely his alternative inner voice. It is this dialectical tension that gives the play its heart.

Howard Davies's excellent production strikes the right balance of personal and political, poignant and humorous, action and debate. Vicki Mortimer's set design features a number of grand doors flanking a cavernous hall, through which a host of historical characters enter and exit, as if we are seeing what really went on behind the scenes of power. Evocation of past events is much solidified by Mark Henderson's imaginative lighting, Paul Arditti's dramatic sound effects and Dominic Muldowney's atmospheric music, as well as the choreography of Lynne Page, as the different eras are suggested by brief interludes of dance, from tango to rock'n'roll.

Irons gives a splendid performance as "Supermac", heavily spectacled and moustached, silvery hair slicked back, and occasionally gently gesticulating with his walking stick as he reflects on his past experiences: an old-fashioned English gentleman who seemed to be an anachronism by the time of the swinging sixties, but who presided benignly over one of Britain's most harmonious periods. Irons makes Macmillan an appealingly modest figure with a tinder-dry wit, more complex than his "decent but dull" label, a loyal man who eventually came into his own by seizing power with both hands.

Pip Carter also does a fine job as Macmillan's younger self, a sort of alter ego making sardonic comments about the older man's passivity. Anna Carteret is his domineering mother, always demanding more of her son, while Anna Chancellor is his glamorous wife who feels real affection for him but whose sensuality is satisfied by Robert Glenister's charismatic if unreliable Boothby. Ian McNeice does a delightful turn as Churchill — just this side of parody — Terence Hardiman is the well-meaning but na´ve appeaser Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Calf shows Eden cracking under pressure, Peter Forbes is the much-put-upon Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, Clive Francis a canny Eisenhower and Tim Frances plays Ronald Knox, the Catholic convert theologian with whom Macmillan flirted as a young man.

If Brenton had written this play thirty years ago, there would surely have been much more anger in it — as it is, the overall mood of Never So Good is elegiac, as Macmillan is framed in the mellow light of the sun setting on the British Empire.

Never So Good
Written by Howard Brenton
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Pip Carter
Anna Carteret, Anna Chancellor, Robert Glenister, Ian McNeice, Terence Hardiman, Anthony Calf, Peter Forbes, Clive Francis, Tim Frances
Design: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Paul Arditti
Music: Dominic Muldowney
Choreography: Lynne Page
A Royal National Theatre production
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes (including interval)
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 24th May 2008
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on March 27th 2008 performance at the Lyttleton, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX (Tube/train: Waterloo)

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