Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

charles III

Charles (Phil Reynolds), not yet enthroned, is challenged on the legitimacy of royal powers by the forceful and unrelenting Prime Minister (Kathy Buckingham-Underhill), watched by Prince William. Pictures: Peter Weston

King Charles III

Talisman Theatre, Kenilworth


Will our next monarch be King Charles III? On the face of it, our long-serving and fiercely loyal Prince Charles will, assuming he does not predecease his mother, be proclaimed the third royal Charles at the next coronation.

But there is an interesting twist here: Charles’s full names are Charles Philip Arthur George, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay. Informed speculation from those close to the palace have suggested he might prefer to take his last name, George, by way of continuity from his revered grandfather and great-grandfather.

George VI was originally known, after all, by his first name, Albert; Edward VII likewise; and Queen Victoria started life as Princess Alexandrina.

So. it could be – perhaps unlikely - we won’t see a Charles III ascend the throne of this sceptred isle. Many have suggested making way for William might be a popular move – especially when the Diana saga was at its height. But who could imagine a coup d’etat in which politicians and the younger royals forced Charles off the throne before his coronation, - and in effect usurped his role?

It sounds fantastic, but in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III it’s the crowning irony: there never is a Charles III, because he is effectively booted out. And even though it’s ‘imagination, not history’, as director John Dawson reminds us, it does have an intriguing ring about it. Is it fantasy, or, given the right tensions and unlikely coalitions, could such a thing actually happen? 

There has to be some due reason for this upsurge of resentment. Each party believes it is doing the right thing. Charles refuses to sign in a law relating to press freedom (preferring ‘to safeguard privacy’), and the flagrant restriction of it – because he cannot accept it. He has taken the crown as the servant of the people, not of a handful of elected representatives. They, of course, see themselves as the rival delegates of the populace. Their word counts, and no other. Queen Elizabeth never strove to overturn a diktat upheld by parliamentary majority. Why should he?

The conflict, played out in the first half of the play by a forcibly Thatcherite PM: Kathy Buckingham-Underhill as Ms. Evans, strong-willed, unyielding, even Republican, very much convinced – not without reason – that she’s on firm ground, and Phil Reynolds’ Charles, becomes a battleground – she keeps coming back for another try – which reminds us of that other Charles: Charles I, who will not yield to the will of Parliament, puts the crown first, and pays a heavy price.

If Evans proves a pretty insistent, even domineering battleaxe, she at least is trying to avoid the confrontation that is bound to arise between throne and her administration. The moment Charles redefines the priorities between his will – the crown’s right to withhold its authority – and her secular power, a battle royal (literally) is inevitable.


Gathering for an unforeseen royal enthronement. Kathy Buckingham-Underhill (Prime Minister), Graham Buckingham-Underhill (Leader of the Opposition), Charles in uniform (Phil Reynolds) and Camilla (Chris Carpenter)

If Dawson’s casting seemed mostly, if not entirely apt, the triumph, inevitably, was to secure Phil Reynolds in the title role. All the tension, fretfulness, indecision, nervousness, hesitations add up to someone who is patently a good man. He strives to get things right. Even as the funeral bell sounds forth Charles is riddled with doubt – ‘I am better thoughtful prince than king’. It’s as if the fateful outcome is an inevitable part of his personality: the clash of principles is there from the very outset. Is it a weak king who will not give ground, or a strong one? Later, as sees the ghost of his mother (a nicely eerie Rosie Gowers), his awe and yearning are in the Hamlet class.

The quality of Reynolds’ speaking, somehow pitching it absolutely right for the Talisman (as he does for other theatres) was one of the most gratifying aspects. Yet as well as providing a model of enunciation, he also managed to capture some of Charles himself in his speech. There were those slight pauses, momentary hesitations if not stutterings, that scattering of doubt. Prince Charles in real life does manage to raise his voice quite strongly, especially addressing a crowd; his more reflective voice; in interviews or personal asides one has that sensation of him feeling his way to framing a phrase or sentence subtly. Reynolds caught all these aspects, and his range of speaking – he is onstage for much of the time – was a huge asset.

He is not beyond worsting his opponents. Asked if the Queen would have been happy with her funeral, he ripostes ‘I trust she should, for it was planned by her’. One other thing Reynolds pulls off particularly valuably (‘The Queen is dead; long live the King – that’s me’; ‘a politician’s tongue you have indeed’) is those iambics with which Bartlett peppers most, if not all, the play (‘transformed into some spitting image puppet’). Do they become a bit stilted at times? – one thinks of Henry VI or King John – but no, they give the script a lightness and a feeling of both regality and familiarity. It’s an entertaining idea, and time and again works admirably here, enhancing the characterisation.  

 The set (John Ellam), an array of half a dozen swinging flats rear stage – seemed not altogether advantageous. The negative was that it occupied, or blocked, enough of the stage to make it unviable to make more of heights and levels. There were just two steps, and even those were very sparingly used. One looked for variety, for subtle placing of characters, for additional items of props that might have better impact than the one or two square stools and tables that were used to no especial advantage. Where the set did gain was in the back projections (Dik Thacker, Richard Crump), all apt: a striking funeral procession at the outset, Downing Street, very effective depictions of inside the palace, crowd scenes favouring or opposing the monarchy (depicted live by some rather naïve placard-waving). Some mock-Handel by way of sound was usually a bonus. 


William (Simon Moss) and Kate (Leigh Walker) enthroned, usurping the role of his father, presided over by the Archbishop (Oliver Jacques)

One other hit in this production was Dee Francis’s costumes. Those she devised for Kate, for instance, including a dazzling scarlet, were wondrously evocative, and there were a series for Charles too. Leonie Slater (Jess – a delicious Talisman debut) was dressed with remarkably subtlety, short dress, a wealth of maroon velvet, incredibly well judged and attractive.

Attractive to Harry (the splendid Ted McGowan, athletic and emotional and an excellent find), who (the play predates the Sussexes) is drawn to her by her very honesty and open-mindedness and sheer common sense. Both he and Jess are a delight every time they’re on stage, even if he’s just buying a kebab. It’s as if a wave of normality comes over the hypertensions of the others.

Simon Moss as William, Duke of Cambridge, steady enough, was lacking in one respect that I felt a main problem with the cast’s showing. One felt that each one needed a range of gestures, or facial expressions, or varied stances, of leaning or kneeling or lolling, or working from the elbows or shoulders or ankles, so as to avoid all danger of a cardboard cutout. Some of this was here, but it was intermittent. Hence my point about the need to have the space and freedom to use rear stage; even the very front stage was minimally capitalized upon. As a result, the whole thing – even despite Reynolds’ best efforts, and he mostly excelled – became marginally static.

Leigh Walker as Kate was pretty wonderful. The real McCoy. She looked the part, had a real authority, in her moves, in her manipulation of her spouse, in handling others and not tolerating any upstaging; plus she was the best enunciated speaker after Reynolds, tremendously articulate, commanding; a palpable hit.

The Buckingham-Underhills as Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition had no problem in making their mark: she, openly challenging, devoid of humour, sincere but tedious; he sly and sauntering, larger than life, affable, sociable – but would you trust him an inch (witness his sneaky, probably apt asides to the audience). Particularly enjoyable was Chris Carpenter as the Duchess of Cornwall: coming out with the kind of motherly good sense and reassurance that one suspects catches Camilla perfectly. One would like her to have had a larger part, enabling Reynolds to sound out some of those agonising thoughts. At least one knew someone would stick by him. To 04-05-19.

Roderic Dunnett


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