Review: King Charles III at the Marlowe Theatre

Most of us Brits have only ever known one monarch during our lifetime. And it’s easy to assume it’ll stay that way forever, but of course we all know a time will come – probably not too far in the future – when things must change, and a new ruler will come to power. But then what?

King Charles III examines this question in unique and ingenious style, imagining the heir to the throne as he finally steps into the role that he was, quite literally, born to play. But when, within days of his mother’s death, he’s asked by the Prime Minister to put his signature to a controversial bill, Charles begins to realise what being a king actually means. As events spiral out of control, he struggles to balance scheming politicians with the expectations of the public and his own family, whilst remaining true to his own conscience and principles.

King Charles III

Mike Bartlett’s Olivier Award winning play is a fascinating glimpse into a possible not too distant future for our country. Though often light-hearted, poking gentle fun at the figures we all know so well (or think we do, at least), King Charles III is also a powerful political thriller that grips from the start – not least because its outcome could affect all our lives. As Charles discovers that holding power is quite different to waiting for it, black sheep Harry’s out meeting a new girlfriend, who might just make him see life a little differently – while golden boy William’s firmly under the thumb of a shrewd and ambitious Kate.

Robert Powell gives a commanding performance as the tortured, lonely Charles, a man desperate to cling on to what he sees as his God-given birthright, and with all the trappings of authority but none of the power to back it up. Richard Glaves gets some of the biggest laughs as Harry; his awe at the wonder that is Sainsburys is quite delightful, and Glaves’ performance captures all the frustration of a young man tied to an institution in which he has no significant part to play. After some initial misgivings, I also enjoyed Jennifer Bryden as Kate – particularly once she drops the saccharine sweetness and lets her inner Lady Macbeth out to play.

Most of the action takes place within the palace walls (with Harry the only royal to escape and venture into the world outside), and Tom Scutt’s majestic, towering set and Jocelyn Pook’s haunting choral music combine to provide a constant reminder of the weight of history and responsibility bearing down on the new monarch’s shoulders.

King Charles III is not at all what I expected… it’s better. This is a play that’s not just entertaining, but wonderfully inventive and incredibly relevant, raising important questions that could well affect our future in the years to come. For most of us, the monarchy is a decorative institution that exists mostly for our amusement. But it wasn’t always that way – and who’s to say it always will be? Obviously, chances are slim that the play’s an accurate depiction of how the future will play out – but it’s nonetheless a powerful reminder of the fact that, one way or another, the monarchy as most of us have always known it is on the verge of major change. So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next…

King Charles III is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, until Saturday 31st October.

Review: Dead Simple at the Marlowe Theatre

Before I start, a quick health warning: this may not be the play for you if you have a fear of small spaces. Or blood. Or clowns. Or… Oh. I think that’s everything. Moving on…

Michael Harrison thinks his life is perfect. He’s got a successful business, millions in the bank and a beautiful fiancée. But it turns out he’s also really bad at choosing his friends – and after a stag night prank goes disastrously wrong, Michael finds himself buried alive, with no immediate hope of rescue.

It’s the stuff of nightmares – and also the plot of Dead Simple, a novel by Peter James adapted for the stage and currently on tour around the UK. Former Hollyoaks actor Jamie Lomas stars as Michael, with Tina Hobley as his beautiful wife-to-be, Ashley, and Rik Makarem as his best friend and business partner, Mark. Meanwhile Gray O’Brien plays DS Roy Grace, the detective charged with finding Michael before it’s too late.

Dead Simple UK tour
Dead Simple is a carefully crafted thriller, full of twists and keeping the audience guessing at every turn. The play hits the perfect note for a wuss like me – chilling without being terrifying, and messing with your head rather than making you jump out of your skin.

It’s a brave move to try and condense such a complex story into two hours; act one does a great job of establishing the characters and plot, ending with a twist that will have you scratching your head and arguing about what just happened throughout the interval. This leaves the second act with a lot of work to do, and it has to move at breakneck speed to unravel the complicated story before the curtain falls. And so, unsurprisingly, there are a few gaps, not least in the character and back story of Roy Grace – but then, as Peter James’ novel is the first in a series featuring Grace, that was probably to be expected.

What the play lacks in realism and detail, though, it more than makes up for in entertainment and intrigue. In this regard it’s very much like a classic Agatha Christie, which you never for one moment believe could actually happen, but you have a great time watching it all the same. The scenes with Michael in the coffin are particularly well done; Jamie Lomas sounds genuinely petrified. And who knows, maybe he is – it can’t be much fun in there.

Dead Simple UK tour
Another challenge of staging such a complex story is all the locations it has to cover, but Michael Taylor’s multi-level set is more than up to the task, encompassing Michael’s living room, the forest where he’s buried, an underground dungeon and the road outside. We can even see into the coffin – whether we want to or not. Any gaps are filled by the special effects; the car crash scene is a particularly unnerving example of how the play works on your imagination.

The cast are clearly enjoying themselves with the intricate plot, and anticipating the audience’s reaction to each twist (I genuinely squeaked a couple of times; it’s hard not to). Lomas is a charismatic lead, even from inside a coffin, in contrast to Rik Makarem’s Mark, who may be physically free but is weakened by his own indecision. Meanwhile former Grange Hill actor Josh Brown makes an impressive theatrical debut as Davey, a young man obsessed with American crime shows, who inadvertently finds himself starring in one.

Dead Simple UK tour
This play is anything but Dead Simple – but a convoluted plot is saved by clever staging and a strong cast. It may not be great literature, but it’s good fun, and isn’t that what the theatre’s supposed to be about?

Dead Simple is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until Saturday 11th July, before concluding its UK tour in Worthing next week.