Jefferson Steel is an ageing Hollywood action hero whose career has seen better days. Persuaded by his agent to tackle the part of King Lear at Stratford, he flies to the UK, ready to share a stage with the greats of English theatre. What he has failed to grasp is that he is to appear not at Stratford-upon-Avon but at a little Suffolk village whose amateur dramatic society has written to every Hollywood name in a bid to save their theatre. Jefferson’s reaction when he finds out is easy to predict – as is the development of both the story and his character.
If the plot is on the flimsy – not to say schmaltzy – side, the play is saved by the creation by writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman of some great characters. There is not a dud role in the play, and a talented cast take full advantage of what they have been offered. Taking centre stage in every sense is Jefferson Steel, played by Crispin Goodall. He has to take the character from a furious prima donna to something approaching a reasonable human being, and he effects the gradual transition with great skill. We soon realise that his ineffable self-centredness hides a deep insecurity, but when, like Lear on the blasted heath, he is stripped down to his naked emotions – ‘I’m a different me now’, he cries – Crispin still conveys a slight feeling of doubt about how much of the old monster has really been exorcised. To him must go much of the credit for the excellent timing and the pace at which the piece rattles along. I’m not sure that any of the fifty states would recognise his American accent, but it serves and he sustains it consistently.
Every am dram society has someone who is the glue that holds it all together, in this case Dorothy Nettle, played by Genette Churchill. As director of King Lear, she is determined and resourceful, dealing with all the crises, hissy-fits and shortcomings that will be familiar to anyone who has ever appeared in an amateur production. But Genette brings light and shade to the character and because Dorothy is so strong, one’s heart goes out to her on the rare occasions when it looks as though it is all becoming too much for her.
Veronica Ryder is the well-meaning but tactless Mary Plunkett, who is playing Regan. She epitomises the simplicity of the village, being the landlady of the Rectory B&B, where Jefferson is staying as – to his horror – the village lacks a Four Seasons hotel. Veronica displays all her considerable comedic gifts both when she is smitten by Jefferson (she loyally puts his grumpiness down to method acting) and when she feels spurned: Hell hath no fury like a B&B owner scorned.
Angus Maule is alarmingly convincing as an old ham who is ready to play any part – as long as it’s the lead. He is buoyed up by his own pomposity. Danielle Warner is excellent as Jefferson’s daughter, a bolshie teenager, but with good reason to be bolshie, and actually longing for a normal, reachable dad: it is a subtle and sympathetic performance. Lauren Bell is the wife of the sponsor of the show, who gets sucked in and ends up as Goneril. She is likeable and enthusiastic but not very bright, and Clare I’Anson brings out these aspects of the character well.
Denis Dobbins is the reliable Mr Fixit of the fictional society and Chris Stowe gives a reliable performance in the part. He seems as comfortable as anyone in his role, he really listens to what the other actors are saying, and his understated gestures are as important as anything else in establishing his character.
Bob Rankin’s direction makes clever use of a simple set, where one hinged flap can convert the stage from the rehearsal room to the B&B. He helps to provide the answer to the question that Jefferson asks of his amateur colleagues and which we have all asked ourselves sometimes: ‘Why do you do it?’
Further performances are on 23 and 24 February at 7.45. One tip: you’ll enjoy it more if you have at least a nodding acquaintance with King Lear.