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Review of King Lear (First preview) at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

Review of first preview.

It is not quite the done thing to review a preview, however I do feel that as long as it is made absolutely clear and signposted (up there, look!), we can get away with it. It does help though if like King Lear, it already feels an incredibly polished affair.

Continuing the Royal & Derngate's busy Shakespeare 400th anniversary season, King Lear is an early twentieth century themed update on perhaps the Bard's greatest tragedy. Directed by Max Webster, who recently worked on the stunning and incredibly different The Lorax, this is at all times faithful but also suitably dynamic enough to work for a modern audience. Designer Adrian Linford has provided a visually simple set (never has the slope of the Royal looked more menacing) for the performance to play out on, allowing the actors to come to the front.

This is where the true brilliance of this production of King Lear is shown. Fourteen actors all virtually at the top of their game bring the constantly grim story to life. The three daughters played by Catherine Bailey (Goneril), Sally Scott (Regan) and Beth Cooke (Cordelia) are all excellent. I felt in particular that Cooke was exceptional as the frail looking yet immensely tough cast out daughter.

Also a delight and somehow triumphing over the slightly ridiculous conceit, was Tom McGovern's Kent. On his return to Lear, you could almost nearly believe he was a different person and try to bypass the crazy pretence in your mind. Joshua Elliott's Fool was very entertaining, although personally I did feel that a little more might have been made from this performance. Pip Donaghy's Gloucester really was very special and after his "incident", it becomes one of even more quality playing the role with a wonderful touch of dignity. An exceptional Gloucester.

However for all the exceptional talent on show, there is one defining performance that takes this to the top of class. Michael Pennington's Lear is a masterclass of acting. Guiding us gently from that initial scene with his daughters and the early trigger points of what is to come. All these played out so wonderfully subtle at first. By the time we reach that scene with the Fool "O fool, I shall go mad!", we have traveled a great distance with this living breathing Lear. I have now had the pleasure of seeing two quite amazing (and quite different) performances of Lear (the other by Simon Russell Beale) and this I feel felt more real due to the engineering of a slower transition to madness and also perfectly underplayed at times. Quite amazing.

There were a few issues as should be expected from a first performance, but they were so incredibly minor. For me some of the fight scenes did need a little bit of tidying up, with some feeling very loose. Ironically one between Edgar (Gavin Fowler) and Edmund (Scott Karim) was the complete opposite, that it was perhaps too full on, even resulting in a weapon of choice sliding from the stage, such was the rage. However for every tiny issue, there are bountiful moments of magic. The famous eye gouging scene was spectacularly realised on stage, much to the squirming of a few members of the audience. While the storm was perhaps one of the most incredibly effective moments I have seen on the Royal stage. Huge congratulations to all that made that moment so special.

So as a self confessed Shakespeare skeptic, but at turns a true fan of King Lear, this was a three hour delight of a show. Stunningly packed with an amazing cast and direction and tech suitably subtle when needed, this once again showcases the Made In Northampton brand quite spectacularly. This is going to pack them in as it travels around the country until July.


Performance reviewed FIRST PREVIEW: Friday 1st April, 2016 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

King Lear runs at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 23rd April, 2016 before touring until July.

For further details visit the Royal & Derngate website at


  1. With front-row seats for tonight's performance, Rosa and I will be hoping that no weapons of choice come our way.

    1. It's not pointy if it does, so you should be safe!


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