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King of Hearts
Hampstead Theatre, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 9 March 2007

The Hampstead Theatre's blurb for Alistair Beaton's King of Hearts contains a striking omission for some reason (cowardice?). Listed alongside 'love, politics and royalty', all of which are set to 'collide', should really be 'Islam'. One can perhaps understand a theatre shrinking from publicising its new play with a juxtaposition of the words 'Islam', 'collide', and 'hilarious'. However, it is exactly this sort of timidity which dogs the entire production.

Since the woefully unfunny 'satire' on New Labour spin, Feelgood, in 2001, Alastair Beaton has been peddling an increasingly irritating brand of so-called political comedy, through 2004's musical offering on the Iraq war and British poodling Follow My Leader to his recent More4 drama, The Trial of Tony Blair, and previously A Very Social Secretary. In this he followed Toby Young who made much hay with his own Blunkett/'Sextator' comedy Who's The Daddy? before coming a cropper with last year's turkey A Right Royal Farce. Now Beaton has inexplicably decided to follow Young again with his own dismal look at the Royals.

The main problem with King of Hearts is that it thinks it is a satire, but amounts to little more than a lacklustre farce, with scattergun attacks on random targets, totally lacking the wit and precision of effective satire. Based in the dying hours of Britain's fictitious reigning king, the big gag is that Prince Richard (a thinly disguised version of Prince William, awkwardly essayed by Ben Righton) has been discovered to have been conducting an illicit, but chaste relationship with a Muslim girl (Zahra Ahmadi). The Prime Minister is aghast at the idea of the future king marrying a Muslim, cuing comments about how, 'we wouldn't be able to bomb a single country in the Middle East again!' The Prince is shocked by the Prime Minister's cynicism and we are afforded many minutes of politician-bashing of the more hackneyed and cynical sort.

Meanwhile, a gay ministerial aide (another dreadful cliché) spits poison about the illiberality of Islamist fundamentalism; Prince Arthur (ie. Harry) is revealed as the homophobic, racist, misogynist alcoholic of popular imagination; the moderate Muslim exposes the establishment's anti-Islamic paranoia when she is arrested as a suicide bomber when entering Sandringham; the Royal Protection Police chief is painted as an unreconstructed Alf Garnett, while a charmingly befuddled Archbishop of Canterbury, played by Roddy Maude-Roxby in one of the evening's few genuinely funny performances, is left to muse the curious position of the monarch in relation to the nation's religious life.

Beaton presents a prime minister and leader of the opposition neither of whose parties is revealed - but whose policies are (hilariously) identical (!). Partly because of the casting, it is hard to tell to which party Beaton imagines either man belongs. Justin Salinger's PM exhibits a over-the-top manic ruthlessness, which - judging by Beaton's previous efforts - puts him in the running for the Blair-alike of the equation. But the leader of the opposition, as played by Jeff Rawle (best known as George from Drop the Dead Donkey, and presenting much the same sort of gently pained affability here), seems too much the likable bumbler to be a convincing Tory.

The real problem is that so little of it rings true. All the accusations and counter accusations limp wearily to the stage from years of shrill tabloid hysteria: politicians are cynical! The royals are an anachronism! Britain is being overrun by Muslim terrorists! The Church is too liberal! Britain is run by a gay liberal mafia! The police are racist! Politicians are racist! Politicians are eroding our civil liberties! Politicians aren't racist enough! Etc. Beaton gives us nothing more than cartoons of people, repeating caricatured versions of about issues which have already been simplified to the nth degree through years of uninformed coverage. The play has so many targets that it continually fails to hit any of them, while leading characters into exchanges which display all the insight and sparkle of a particularly poor GCSE Citizenship debate.

Till 31 March 2007


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