King's Head Theatre, London N1
Opened 22 September, 1995

In the catalogue of wildly perverse stage ideas waiting to be clutched at, a musical comedy about the legendary 19th-century tragedian Edmund Kean must rank pretty damned high. The damnedest thing about this show is that it works.

Granted, Sylvia Freedman and Michael Jeffrey don't go single-mindedly for laughs, but both in their script and Phillip George's dedicatedly impish direction, the humour is the rocket-fuel which keeps the show racing along. Every so often a serious song crops up with serious modern-stage-musical chord changes even a musical setting of the "Hath not a Jew eyes..." speech, for pity's sake but matters are rapidly saved by another daft frolic as a coven of Regency luvvies parade across the tiny King's Head stage procliming in song, "We're deathless pros," or Kean chases an alderman's wife around his dressing-room. The word we're looking for here is "romp".

The opening scene leaves some uncertainty about what may ensue: things could so easily topple into forced, failed semi-jollity. Then along comes the "setting the period" number, complete with decapitated Marie Antoinette, mad King George and a child actor playing Pitt the Younger, and the gags are popping out so thick and fast that their lack of originality doesn't matter, only the verve with which they're carried off. The entire company embrace the clichés and the parody, neither standing off from the material nor bludgeoning it.

As Kean was an infernal hell-raiser, so David Burt takes a devilish pleasure in his cavortings. The tragedian was most famed for his dark, brooding Shylock, but the Shakespearean character at the heart of Burt's performance is Puck. His mischief infects audience and cast alike, even young Daniel Whelan who pulls off his juvenile cameos without the reek of child-actor precocity.

The red velvet drapes swish across the stage, "wiping" the action from scene to scene, as the company gambol cheerily with only the occasional pause for breath in a straight number. The whole affair is a ludicrous idea that has no right to be the success it is, but, hell, I'm the last to complain.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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