Review – Theatrical Knights, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 2nd November 2017

Theatrical KnightsLast night was my first visit to the Playhouse Theatre since its recent, fresh redecoration – and I must say, nice work guys, very comfortable and chic! This week’s play is Theatrical Knights, a comedy thriller by Keith Lipscombe. What’s that? You’ve never heard of him? He’s written three plays, but I believe this is the first time any of them have actually been produced on stage – so it’s a true theatrical debut. And that’s not the only debut on offer; the director is none other than local hero and alternative blog source of everything theatrical in Northampton, Kevin Evans, a.k.a. A Small Mind at the Theatre. It was a no-brainer that I would go along to see what the combination of a rookie playwright and even rookier director would come up with.

The betSome plays remind you of others, right? Theatrical Knights was written as an homage to the late Anthony Shaffer, and traces of his classic thriller Sleuth are written through this play like a stick of rock. There’s a clothed dummy, weapons on the wall, a clown’s mask and a slightly curious relationship between an older and a younger man. There are also some slightly spurious details in the programme’s dramatis personae to keep you guessing. However, Theatrical Knights is very much its own play, and if you think you’re going to see Sleuth 2, you’ll be very surprised. The knights in question are writer and luvvie Sir Tom Seymour, a little down on his uppers as his most recent theatrical projects have all collapsed in a heap; and national treasure Sir Anthony Randolph, that rare being who rose through the ranks to become one of our best loved actors, excelling not only in the West End and on TV, but also in Hollywood. We’re truly lucky to have him with us at this discreet little venue.

These two old fellas keep their friendship (such as it is) going by a series of quips, stings and digs and by the rivalry that causes them to bet against each other. When we first meet Sir Tom, he’s clearly had an accident, and has lost his mobile in the back of a taxi the night before, presumably following some kind of crash. Sir Tom rang his own mobile number, the cabbie answered, and they arranged that he would bring it over. Meanwhile, Sir Tony wants to see him, ostensibly to make sure his old mucker is ok, and his visit coincides with the cab driver returning the mobile; so far, so straightforward. However, just before the cab driver arrives, the two knights talk of how this would be the perfect resolution of their bet. Other details as to what that all means are scarce. Sir Tony goes off, to listen in on their conversation; Lou the cabbie arrives with the phone, Sir Tom turns on the charm and full hospitality and insists on Lou having something to eat, to drink, and so on… and then things start to get out of hand. But exactly what and how, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to come and see it!

Sir TomI was really impressed by the attention to detail that has obviously gone in to the staging of this play, and creating the illusion that the two knights really are real. The walls are covered with posters of Sir Tom’s greatest theatrical hits; the programme has their extensive biographical details; if you arrive half an hour before curtain up you can see a video of an edition of Letts Talk, where renowned arts critic Fabiana Letts hosts a chat show discussion between the two old geezers, and you can even see an extended clip from one of Sir Tom’s big successes, Laughing Matter. (You can actually watch it here if you like!)

Sir TonyIt’s a well-written play, with plenty of amusing and creative dialogue and it weaves its little intricacies very successfully and surprisingly. The different characteristics of the two knights are nicely fleshed out, giving the two actors plenty of opportunity to revel in their individual personalities. Robin Hillman conveys Sir Tom’s waspish and petulant nature with laconic glee; deep down, I don’t think he’s a very nice chap at all! Adrian Wyman really captures Sir Tony’s hail-fellow-well-met temperament, with some beautiful false modesty and some wonderfully stagey regional accents that only a national treasure would get away with. And then there’s Nathan Stroud as Lou, the cab driver; an innocent abroad caught up in the antagonism between the two older men, but with a few secrets of his own up his sleeve.

Laughing MatterAct Two includes a brilliant little coup de theatre, really well executed by Messrs Wyman and Stroud, which you can’t quite believe happened, even after the actors show us how it was done. If I have a little quibble about the play, I’m not sure that Lou’s explanation of why Sir Tom will be found guilty really holds water; wouldn’t the real murderer’s DNA be traced inside the gloves? And the resolution of the play involves a switch to personal redemption issues and general niceness; and I think the audience might be hoping for something a trifle more maleficent.

Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining debut all round, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Mr Lipscombe and Mr Evans creating more theatrical mayhem in the future.

P. S. Have you watched the clip of Laughing Matter yet? I played the murderer!