The Madness of George III – New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich

In a rare outing, Alan Bennett’s epic play The Madness Of George III is currently touring the country but the only madness that sticks in one’s memory is that of the show’s designers.
The wig designer, for example, seems to have raided a fancy dress shop to come up with tonsorial topiary that resembles an insane rendition of a Smurf, Elvis, and an accident in a cycle helmet factory. The costumes look as though they have been cobbled together by the actors themselves from a pile of fabric remnants.

Things get off to a shaky start with an opening projected montage reduced to a series of vague blobs. Technically things don’t improve, the shoestring budget staging never conveying the lavish excess of Court life. Staging consists principally of two sets of voile curtains that are swished across the stage so often that you expect to see them have their own credit in the programme. At the back of the stage stands a set of double doors, poorly installed with large gaps to allow the audience to watch wandering cast members behind the set. Thankfully the dim, flat and insipid lighting design renders much of this mess virtually indistinguishable in pools of gloom.

So technically the show fails badly but surely with a script as vivid as Bennett’s and with some star name casting, the performances will compensate? Sadly, performances are as patchy as the staging.

Support roles here seem as thinly drawn as the constantly moving voiles, with the cast seeming to offer little apart from a dry line reading. In the original production and subsequent film, Nigel Hawthorne shone, unravelling the complex character of the King. Here, though, Simon Ward is inconsistent at best. When in the grip of the Monarch’s mania he is both moving and touching but, for the rest of the time, fails to convince. Despite the illness there still needs to be an echo, however faint, of a man that can lead his Country and Empire; Ward’s performance, however, just offers a befuddled old fool shuffling around the stage. As his devoted Queen, Susan Penhaligon fares little better, again never giving the much-needed sense of regal Majesty, hindered perhaps by a cod-German accent that draws sniggers rather than sympathy.

On paper it all looks so promising; an award-winning play by one of Britain’s best-loved writers, a long list of technical credits in the programme and star casting in the form of Ward and Penhaligon. That it turns out to be a turkey of giant proportions in an ill-conceived and poorly-executed offering is therefore even more disappointing.

Far from giving us an insight into the demons that beset this Monarch and the relationship between Court and State, the only response this curiously overblown yet paper-thin production elicits is how on earth it ever reached the stage and why a cast of this calibre would want to be associated with it. This is one production that an audience would be mad to want to watch.

Photo: The Madness of George III company. Photographer George Riddell

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