King Lear at the Festival Theatre Malvern

There was a delayed start at the opening night of this production due to a lighting malfunction but who needs lights when you have the magnificent and irrepressible Michael Pennington to illuminate the stage.

The veteran actor was clearly at the top of his game in the title role - bang on the mettle as he morphed from menace to mental breakdown as both family and his kingdom disintegrated.

What a great pity so few were there to witness this compelling production which is now in the final week of its UK tour.

Those who made the opening night effort on the evening of English football’s capitulation to that soccer stronghold of Iceland in the European Championships were the ones who were really rewarded. Those who stayed at home or visited their local pub to witness England’s inglorious defeat clearly missed a theatrical treat.

Initial concern that the small band of spectators in the stalls wee going to be outnumbered as the cast strode on for the opening scene soon faded. The audience, like the referendum vote, had enough in hand to stay ahead but this was one night when everyone there was a winner.

They were able to witness an all-round confident and creative performance, with excellent support for Pennington’s outstanding Lear, and in return their efforts in this marathon play of three hours the cast were also acclaimed with warm and deserved applause.

Director Max Webster, who took over very early in the tour from Philip Franks as he was still recovering from an operation, ensures Shakespeare’s lengthy tome does not sag in the middle, keeping it running at a nice steady pace.

Another dark and brooding tale from the Bard - it’s loves, liaisons, lies and treachery as Lear descends into a dark world, tipped over the edge by three dysfunctional daughters - two with designs on grabbing power whatever the cost.

Those sisters - Catherine Bailey(Goneril) and Sally Scott (Regan), in particular, as they carve up the country between them, and Beth Cooke (Cordelia), become so powerful as to partially blur Lear into occasional obscurity, but only momentarily.

Dividing up the spoils among family in exchange for declarations of love and centres of rest in retirement are fraught with danger as Lear learns to his cost.

Not completely at ease with a mix of periods - flowing robes and 30s/40s smart suits and frocks, swords and daggers, and mid-20th century rifles, and what suspiciously looked like a Silver Cross pram! A touch confusing!

But no mixed messages anywhere else. Pip Donaghy was a convincing and loyal Gloucester, while Gavin Fowler and Scott Karim were style and substance as his sons - Karim, the ambitious, stop-at-nothing half-brother, Edmund and Fowler, the not quite with it Edgar who subsequently gathers his wits.

The set is stark - huge sliding glass panels and impressions of a concrete wall with an iron gate at its centre. Hints of a country on its uppers, but it does the job and there’s a first rate storm scene.

Hopefully, with England now out of Europe twice in recent days, audience figures will grow - especially after the footy debacle. This production deserves as much and at least you will be guaranteed not to be let down by a group of overpaid players!

These ‘players’ earned and deserved their rewards.

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