Henry II – Reading, October 2018

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For those of you who reckon I only ever write about movies or music, here’s a rare treat – a theatre review. Yes, an actual theatre review.

Last night I traveled to the wilds of Berkshire (well, Reading town centre, which can get a bit wild at times) to see Reading Between The Lines‘ production of Henry II. Couple of reasons for going – firstly, my old mate Mark was playing the title role, and due to some diligent family history work by my cousin Graham and I, I know that my family line actually includes good old King Henry himself!

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Quick bit of plot for you: After a long and bloody civil war, peace (of a kind) has come to England, Reading Abbey has finally been finished, and the consecration ceremony is upon us. However, among rich and poor, powerful and peasant, all is not well. King Henry is struggling to maintain his grip on his two main companions, his beautiful but headstrong wife Eleanor and his oldest friend and newly pious Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. As life, love and ambition flow around him, pressures mount and his reactions become more extreme. Meanwhile, among the poor locals, love and ambition manifests between a young poet and a visiting troubadour.

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That’s the backdrop to the action, but the true backdrop was the magnificent setting chosen for the play. Reading Minster is a spectacular old church with elements reaching back to the original Abbey, and provided a one-of-a-kind stage for the actors. Filled with smoky haze and expertly lit, the audience really felt as if they were transported back in time.

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And on that stage, we saw a play that captivated, amused, gripped, and delighted. Mark Middleton as Henry showed us a character at once both deep and remarkably shallow, balancing the power of the omnipotent king with the insecurities of a man wracked by doubts over his closest friends. Annabelle Brown gave a commanding performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine, often showing emotional strength at the times when Henry lacked, and a controlled demeanor at the times when her husband really needed to.  Toby W Davies, as Thomas Becket, was utterly believable as the party-animal turned pious leader, giving further contrast to the two halves of Henry’s rapidly diverging character.

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Special mention needs to go to Oliver Hoare and Bethan James as Bart and Marie. Watching their movement from stranger, to dislike, to tolerance, and finally to love, mirrored the stated ‘four stages of love’ (interest, declaration, dedication, and consummation), lines that are oft repeated by the couple. That symmetry was underpinned and reinforced wonderfully by excellent physical and vocal performances.

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The rest of the cast, including Gerald the beaver-obsessed acolyte, Roland the Flatulist, Amaria the surrogate to Bart’s mother, and all the supporting cast and crew, threw in emotion, pathos, great humour, and filled the stage with life and energy. Pacing and staging was perfect, and the momentum never let up for a second.

Overall? Simply one of the best shows I’ve seen in quite some time. Huge congratulations to RTBL and everyone involved. Rest assured, your box office link is now bookmarked for your next performance (A Christmas Carol in December)

All pictures property of and courtesy of Reading Between The Lines

 

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