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Review of The James Plays at Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton

There is no question that over the course of the six plus hours it takes to watch The James Plays, you are never far from having immense enjoyment and regard for the work being performed. However at times during the three plays, it can tend to feel that you are more witness to an "experience" more than three perfect plays. The James Plays are very much an event and one which while you could maybe just attend one of, actually works better seeing all three. However that takes a great deal of commitment from the audience and therefore needs to be rewarded.

The James Plays are written by Rona Munro, whose only other work I have encountered was rather fascinatingly a Doctor Who story twenty-seven years ago about human sized cats. I kid you not. Telling the story across the three plays of each of the first three King James of Scotland, from the warrior like James I, onward to the childhood times of James II, onto eventually the frankly madcap antics of James III. The contrast of the plays however doesn't stop at their leads characteristics, as each of the three plays themselves offer dramatically different styles. The first a very Scottish affair, much more than the second two. All proud and dramatic as we get the bulk of the action within this play also. The second almost a coming of age drama as we see the young boy king, aged six move from traumatized child onto becoming a husband and beyond. The third becomes a flight of fantasy and madness as we have contrasting relatively modern dress and even more starkly modern music.

All three actors bring their own powerful take to the roles, with Steven Miller perhaps the most captivating and powerful of the three. He is an actor who has that effortlessly watchable persona on stage (as he did when I had the pleasure of seeing him at the Corby Cube for No Way Back) and his James I capitilises on the fact that the first of the three plays is by far the best. Whether he is playing the comic with excellent timing or the powerful soldier, effortlessly climbing the cleverly used four poster during the battle scene, he is quite brilliant. In James III he is also a rather sublime Sandy, brother of James and delivers the best F-word usage (there are many) of the three plays in a perfectly timed moment.

Andrew Rothney as James II handles the difficulty of portraying the six year old king extremely well, frequently hiding in "his box" away from the troubles. He is particular brilliant in the best scene of the second play, as we are cast through a magnificent high paced nightmare scene.

Our third king is played by Matthew Pidgeon, all wide-eyed and re-pleat with startling eyeliner, this is very much an off the wall monarch fond of his garish costumes and choir. It takes some effort to make the antics of James III work, but Pidgeon is comfortably up to it.

Other performances worthy of mention include John Stahl, a quite brilliantly powerful Murdac in James I, while returning in James II as a slightly more pantomime villain, but equally stunning Livingston. He is definitely missed in James III.

Interestingly only appearing in James III is the really wonderful Malin Crépin as Margaret. Effectively the lead role, hers is a standout performance. Cold and calculating in dealing with Daisy (Fiona Wood), and running the country with skill while the King merely celebrates his choir. Her performance makes the third play all the more special for me. Wonderful.

Daniel Cahill also brings great power to the third play and is in unquestionably the most challenging scene of the three plays. It is bold and brave and without doubt a performance of tremendous achievement and heralds us towards a scene of immense payoff, if you have watched all three plays.

Special mentions also are for Blythe Duff as consort Isabella in the first two plays, but who I actually enjoyed more in the third as Annabella, the King's aunt. Andrew Still is impressive as Douglas, who with Rothney manages to make that interminably long final scene of James II just about bearable. I also enjoyed servant and nanny Meg as played by Sally Reid, more than happy to be forthright.

What does come across with the three plays is the depth of talent across the entire cast, with most appearing in all three plays in some role or other. It perhaps breeds an atmosphere of companionship like no other and very much comes across to the audience that this is a team working together. Perhaps much of this is down to director Laurie Sansom, a director who although I have never seen the work of before, I had heard much of as he was the departed artistic director at the Royal just before I "found" the place. You can see it on stage though, The James Plays are quite brilliantly directed, it just glows off the stage. The teamwork of the cast in moving between the scenes with perfectly created ease is there for all to see. At the opening of one act the cast lay the table as the audience takes their seats, bringing us slowly back into the story after our outside meanderings. While at the opening of both acts of James III, the cast dance with obvious joy on their faces to a collection of anachronistic songs. I have rarely seen direction of this standard over my theatre going experience and when it happens like this, it is a thing of absolute beauty.

There are issues its true, the plays themselves pretty much reach the peak during James I and for those not wanting to do the whole triptych, this would be the one I would recommend. For me James II is the most troubling of the three, the first act is quite brilliant, particular the dream sequence. Then at the end of the play, it leaves you with the memory of that horrendously long scene between James and Douglas. If that was how you left the day, you would likely leave disappointed. However then you have the madness of James III to contend with and that modern edge. It worked for me with that modern dress and music, however I suspect that for many it might not have. I also suspect that many would regard the swearing as excessive and frequently unnecessary, particular in the first two plays. In the third, much of it is used to much better dramatic and comic effect.

However while there are better plays out there, there is little doubt that The James Plays as a trio creates a theatre event like no other. Combining vast amounts of brilliance with moments of oddly strange ones as well. They are brilliantly staged, often extremely funny and never poorly acted by this extremely talented ensemble. They are therefore for any regular theatre goer totally recommended in the absolute must see sense.

James I: ««««½
James II: «««½
James III««««

Performance reviewed: Saturday 16th, Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th April, 2016 at the Royal & Derngate (Derngate), Northampton.


The James Plays were at Royal & Derngate on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th April, 2016 only, but are currently touring. For details see: https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/content/default.asp?page=home_TheJamesPlays

For further details about the Royal & Derngate visit their website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

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