Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay
in The Lion in Winter
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay
in The Lion in Winter
(© Catherine Ashmore)
James Goldman's creaky and wheezing 1966 historical play, The Lion in Winter, has been revived by Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal Haymarket as a vehicle for Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley. But while the stars don't disappoint, the production itself is a lumbering, tired thing.

The play is set in 1183, in the French chateau of Henry II (Lindsay). His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Lumley), has been confined for a decade for siding against him and is now only allowed out on occasion. His three surviving sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John (Tom Bateman, James Norton, and Joseph Drake), are jostling for power, while Richard's betrothed, the Princess Alais (Sonya Cassidy), has fallen for Henry and become his mistress.

The play is set at Christmas time and Goldman delights in a 'home for the holidays' set up with the whole family reunited and plotting and conniving against one another. The play is willfully stuffed with incongruities and inaccuracies, with characters breaking off during volatile confrontations to say anachronistic things like: "It's 1183, we are all barbarians," or "What shall we hang - the holly or each other?" The tone of Nunn's production sits midway between sitcom and soap opera with the medieval setting providing little more than background color and the characters' complex power-play reduced to a spot of bickering around the Christmas tree.

There are some engaging moments. The scene where Henry finds his three sons concealed behind tapestries and curtains within the bedroom of the young King of France is amusingly staged and the lingering sexual and emotional connection between Henry and Eleanor is brought to the fore.

Their evident hunger for and admiration of one another is the thing that holds the play together, and this is where Lindsay and Lumley really get a chance to shine -- which is fortunate because the adolescent carping and whining of their offspring soon becomes tiresome. When, towards the end, the princes start talking patricide it never feels convincing; there's no real sense of jeopardy.

Lindsay is suitably leonine and egoistic as the aging king, injecting his performance with a degree of knowingness between his roaring and raging. Lumley is sweeping and regal but a bit too perky as his estranged wife; her gestures are often strangely exaggerated and she only occasionally captures something of the character's calculation and steeliness.

The other cast members also often feel as if they are going through the motions, though that's perhaps the fault of the play, with its supposedly comic lines falling flat and a lack of anything resembling tension.

The production at least looks the part, with Stephen Brimson Lewis' set suitably lavish if over-mechanized, eroding the sense of the medieval even further with its sliding panels and gliding chairs.