The Future is Another Country
Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles III: a splendidly finger-twiddling, anxious old-new monarch
Since 1688, when the Catholic King James II was overthrown in favour of William of Orange, Britain has had a monarchy whose powers have been constrained by public consent. That has proved a jolly good inoculation against revolutions and other excitements. But it is also raises questions about the unwritten limits of the Crown's powers, a question that drives the thoroughly improbable yet enjoyable action of King Charles III. Mike Bartlett, who gave us one of those doom-laden climate-change numbers with Earthquakes in London, has another bash at futurology, albeit in more jocular fashion, at London's Almeida.
We begin with Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) as a splendidly finger-twiddling, anxious old-new monarch, fretting over how to step into Mummy's shoes, while haunted by ghostly apparitions of Diana, who pops up in a black veil to advise various male members of the House of Windsor that they could be the greatest king the country has ever had.
These entertaining "what ifs" are niftily written in Shakespearean blank verse, with echoes of Macbeth's tale of twisted ambition interlaced with present-day royal conundrums. Camilla (Margot Leicester) lurks at the side of the action like one of the Bard's fretful matriarchs. The Duchess of Cambridge's charm and ambition are captured in a brilliantly sly performance by Lydia Wilson, all teetering court-shoes, glossily tossed locks and a steely sway over an uncertain William (Oliver Chris).
The broadest source of comedy is, of course, Prince Harry (Richard Goulding), a lost playboy who falls in love with Jess (Tafline Steen), one of those bog standard teenagers whom directors cast in bovver boots and glottal stops to tell the stupid adults how the world really ought to be run. How we love them.
I hate to come over all F.R. Leavis about this, but there is a credibility "ishoo" around Harry, as Jess might put it. The real thing is now approaching 30 years old. We are told the Queen reigned for around 70 years and the post-Leveson framing of the plot about the press still refusing to behave as politicians would wish suggests we must be a few years down the line from present upheavals.
This would make Harry the oldest confused teenager in town, seeing as he is already too old for the role of feckless clubber. Bartlett indulges the hoary middle-class fantasy that the younger royals are unhappy with their lot and would rather be normal. You think?
"We went to, like, Sainsbury's," says Harry dreamily of his first date with Jess. We can safely say he'd prefer a party-tastic Sloane and a night at Sandringham.
If the royal caricatures get a bit wearing, Bartlett's projection of future political leaders is as well-judged as such political astrology can be. On this showing Ed Miliband's successor is a classless Welsh chap called Evans, who holds the monarchy in barely-concealed contempt and presumes to tell a testy Charles how to conduct a weekly audience. The silky, scheming Tory is a dead ringer for the lugubrious Philip Hammond — not an altogether unrealistic prospect.
The King refuses royal assent to a bill gagging the press, setting himself on a collision course with parliament. Stranger things have happened down at the palace.