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 The Theatreguide.London Review


King of Hearts
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2007

Alistair Beaton's new play is a funny, funny comedy that manages to mix political satire, low farce and some just plain funny jokes, and still has something to say about the world we live in.

Imagine a parallel universe very much like ours in which the King of England is dying. While the Prime Minister and his cronies try to manoeuvre events for their best political advantage - to the extent of timing the turning off of life support to meet newspaper deadlines - they are hit by a wild card.

The Prince of Wales, a young man not unlike the second in line to the throne in our world, has fallen in love with a Muslim woman and is considering conversion to Islam himself. Suddenly all the political machinations must be put in reverse, as it becomes essential to keep the King alive until the prince can be argued, cajoled, or blackmailed into doing the politically expedient.

In the interim, legitimate questions about constitutionality and just how multi-ethnic Britain is ready to become are debated alongside the (im)purely political and venal.

The frantic what-do-we-do-now is both hilarious and thought-provoking, as when the Archbishop of Canterbury bemusedly finds himself arguing for disestablishment of the C of E or when a particularly ploddish security man tries to explain why he assumed the Prince's fiancée was a terrorist.

The PM is a totally political animal for whom every question immediately translates into how it will affect his power, and the only thing that differentiates him from the Leader of the Opposition is that the latter is a bit dim. The PM's chief aide has a penchant for royal footmen (hence the trousers-down farce), but he has studied with a master Machiavellian and knows the political power of dirty tricks.

Some of the jokes will bite deep, and the basic assumption - that a real test of multiculturalism in Britain would not be met with grace - might even be a sobering thought. But you'll be laughing too much for these things to spoil the fun.

Justin Salinger makes the PM an irresistible monster of self-absorption and amorality, balanced by Christian Brassington's attractive and sensible Prince. Roddy Maude-Roxby keeps us wondering whether the Archbishop's dottiness is just a sly mask, and solid support comes from Zahra Ahmadi's princess-to-be, Anthony O'Donnell's security man, Toby Dantzic's gay aide, and Alister Cameron's stuffy but unshakeable royal retainer.

Ramin Gray and Max Stafford-Clark co-direct with no seams showing and with exactly the right combination of high energy and delicacy of touch to keep this bubble afloat.

The play ends with a sudden shift in style that virtually shouts 'The author didn't know what to do at this point,' but it is done so cleverly, and the play up to that point has been so much fun, that you won't mind.

King of Hearts is the best political play since 2001's Feelgood, also by Alistair Beaton, and it is a very funny comedy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - King of Hearts - Hampstead 2007