Stage review: 55 Days, Hampstead Theatre


55 Days
Hampstead Theatre

Two charismatic actors reveal the compelling contrasts of two celebrated historic figures in Howard Brenton's nuggety Civil War clash.

Hampstead Theatre has been reconfigured. The seats are placed on either side of the stage which creates some awkwardness (backs to the audience, darling) but promotes the idea of division; a Parliament of opposites.

Which is the theme of Howard Brenton's marvellous new play set at the tail-end of the English Civil War when battle fatigue could have tipped the country back into the kind of tyranny it had spent years trying to escape.

The 55 days of the title is the time (1648-49) between the rampant Army purging parliament of latent royalists and the moment when this most bloody chapter of English history was brought to a close with an axe.

"We are not just trying a tyrant, we are inventing a country," declares Oliver Cromwell.

And the sticky business of nation-building - of compromise and idealism - is the theme that excites the playwright.

The Roundheads are winning the war but likely to lose the peace as, yet again, brother is set against brother over the meaning of victory and the interpretation of God's will.

Amid the chaos, however, two characters (then as now) take centre stage and both are embodied by actors equal to the challenge.

King Charles I is prissy and self-righteous, the only one dressed in historical garb - with the familiar lace and flounces - and with a lilt of Scottish to his precise voice as he calls upon his position as heaven's sacred anointed to scare the bejesus out of his God-fearing opponents.

Mark Gatiss is clever in the court scenes and intriguing in isolation with the poignancy driven solely by his predicament and never from his glassy heart.

Douglas Henshall as Oliver Cromwell is the charismatic and flawed pivot of the piece.

Cromwell had no official leadership position but provided the moral heft and Henshall shows us the dithering and the decisiveness in a mesmerising and nuanced performance.

What Brenton calls the "obligation" scene - the fictional meeting of the two men - is as nourishing and accomplished as the long build-up demands with Cromwell urging Charles to see sense and "come to terms" and the king preparing serenely and doggedly for martyrdom.

The scene is topped by the trial where the brightest legal minds make law on the hoof to counter the king's mix of canny insight, blind intransigence and unexpected populism.

Director Howard Davies stages all this amid flanks of filing cabinets, with tiny ties and tinny typewriters conjuring the thin gruel of post-war squabbling.

Simon Kunz, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Daniel Flynn and Gerald Kyd provide solid support in a rewarding work; a reminder that the institutions we take for granted were carved, with blood and blister, from stubborn stone.

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