Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Thought for the Day • NEVER SO GOOD • A Dissenting View • 2008

500px-National_Theatre,_LondonAfter reading Evie Rackham’s notice of Never So Good on Rogues & Vagabonds, along with a lot of the press comment in the past fortnight, I’m wondering whether paying your own money to see a show sharpens the critical faculties. For me, Howard Davies’ epic staging unarguably misses its mark, and very few of the superlatives lavished on it would have found their way into any review I’d written; although I would immediately concede that, in sheer production terms, the National has done a flawed play more than proud.

Seeing the play a few days before the official opening, I and my companion (who was, if anything, less impressed than me) had the unusual advantage of forming our own opinions without the distraction of half-remembered quotations from various reviewers. I’d booked early, partly because I find this kind of large-scale political drama – in which both the National and the RSC have an often distinguished history – an engrossing theatrical form, and I thought Howard Brenton’s participation was a guarantee of quality; but also because I knew that the presence of Jeremy Irons as Macmillan made at least the first few weeks of the run a likely sell-out. It transpired that I was wrong in both regards.

The house was only about four-fifths full the night I went, and an initially perky audience gradually became more subdued as the very long evening wore on, a tide of disappointment slowly and perceptibly sweeping in. It was telling that the most moving moment of the 150 minutes was the last, when the impeccably polite protagonist wished us all a very good evening, and turned to go: this won a large sigh, and a better round of applause than I’d been expecting – though not nearly enough for the attempted three curtain calls. Admittedly, there are only around half a dozen cues for an audience reaction in the play, including a prod for us to acknowledge the tenuous resemblance between Suez and the current Iraq adventure; but even those were only acknowledged, rather than embraced, and anything approaching a laugh was very rare.

It is, undeniably, a downbeat, and predominantly disillusioning story. As Enoch Powell (a figure absent in the play) rightly said, all political careers end in failure, and Evie Rackham is right in identifying Macmillan’s ‘it’ as an ambition to strike and seize the crown, which he finds far too late in life. For he is not a figure of the highest rank, an epoch-maker: he is interesting as an incomplete human being, dependent on strong-willed mentors – his ruthless mother, his Catholic tutor, his political patron Churchill. Sadly, two of these are inadequately embodied here (Robert Glenister, giving a recognisable if simplified Boothby, would have made a better Churchill than the uncharismatic, blubbery baby Ian McNeice offers us); and so, I must reluctantly say, is Macmillan himself.

Accomplished actor that he is, Irons holds the stage well, and goes with the grain of the script in making the man the most sympathetic in the galère of selfish characters on display; but both in looks and vocal quality, he was truly born to play Anthony Eden. He does not convince in what is, for him, an ill-fitting role. Despite his mental anxiety, and physical wounds – his wartime travails, including enlightenment about the condition of the Common Man, are thunderously emphasised – Irons has the bearing, from the earliest scenes, of a still youthful man playing old, from his overdone false teeth to his suspiciously even grey hair. (It has to be said that Anna Chancellor, spirited and far too glamorous as the adulterous Dorothy Macmillan, outdoes him in this respect: her only concession to ageing during a supposed 35-year period is to don a ratty wig on her final appearance.) Anthony Calf, meanwhile, makes a game attempt at Eden, capturing his neurotic quality while missing his suavity; and Clive Francis, in an amusing cameo, moulds Eisenhower into a slightly more florid character than the newsreels depict.

Even in near-documentary drama, of course, exact verisimilitude isn’t necessary; what is vital is showing why and how these people and these events matter. Granted, Brenton dutifully visits the staging posts in Macmillan’s life history; but he tails off in the ‘Supermac’ years, with Profumo almost a footnote (despite its being the thing for which the ex-Premier is now most frequently mentioned, along with “The Wind of Change”, “Events, dear boy, events” and, naturally, the eponymous misquote “You’ve never had it so good.”). His plodding dialogue fatally doesn’t animate these turning-points and he instead top-dresses the action with embarrassingly long and lamely staged dance numbers marking the passage of each decade. Worse, he uses the tired old device of having onstage throughout the action a representative of Macmillan’s conscience, his younger self. Pip Carter (so good in the recent NT Present Laughter) utterly fails to justify the character’s increasingly irritating interventions: it is – and this is relevant – a dog of a part.

You might like to make your own mind up. Indeed, the powerful staging of the show has been mentioned so often in critical reaction, it might of itself make you feel you had got your money’s worth in seeing Macmillan’s story staged (I won’t say ‘in dramatic form’ as it isn’t, very). However, if it’s ever revived, a play by Hugh Whitemore called Letter of Resignation, which I saw some years ago with Edward Fox and Clare Higgins (both splendid), gets far closer to the spirit, and I think the reality, of Macmillan the anguished man. In comparison, Never So Good is ever so poor.

Adam Sheldon © 2008

Originally published on R&V 08-04-08

2 comments on “Thought for the Day • NEVER SO GOOD • A Dissenting View • 2008

  1. teagan geneviene

    Thanks for this mindful commentary Sarah. Have a wonderful weekend. Hugs

  2. First Night Design

    Hugs, Teagan!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Food & Wine

Coffee fuels my photography!

~ my everyday life through the lens of my camera ~

Polly's Paper Studio

Vintage Inspired Paper Crafts & Digital Design

Robin King

I make faces.

Life on La Lune

A journey through life in Southwest France

Vanessa Couchman

Historical Fiction with a French Flavour

Disability & Determination

It isn't being John Malkovich, but it is being me

Niko's Floating World ニコの浮世

Musings on Literature & Life From Japan and east asia

Joe Ruggiero at Home

Daily Reflections from My Home and Garden

Mitch Teemley

The Power of Story

Genealogy Jude

Unlocking the Door to Your Past

Jack Monroe

The #1 budget recipe website

Stevie Turner

Realist, writer, reader and reviewer, and rocker.

The Stuff They Won't Include in Any Tourist Guide: The Real England

The Real England is a concise, direct, and not-so-gentle window into the depths of the leftovers of the world’s once greatest empire. It is told from the perspective of one lone (or not so lone) long term visitor. It informs one of the dregs of the country and helps to explain quaint British oddities such as the crack addicted chav.

Postcards from

home and away...

S.O.U.L. S-P-A-C-E

Artists, Writers and Visionaries Blog on the Unique and Ordinary

The Lady Sews

Collected works and other excuses from a textile obssessive


Defending Scientism


has random thoughts

Criminal Historian

Working with dead people


Writing - Loving What I Do and Doing What I Love!


the darker side to sedge808

Off Center & Not Even

Photographs, music and writing about daily life. Contact:

Reina Cottier Art

Creative Intuitive from New Zealand

Tenafly Road

Family Saga Fiction by Adrienne Morris


Burgers, Books, Music, Movies, Offbeat Adventures & Pop Culture!

Etan Smallman

Freelance journalist

Assemblage Art

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...

Candia Comes Clean

Candid cultural comments from the Isles of Wonder


Horror, Science Fiction, Comic Books and More

The Wandering Empath

Traveling the World Through Others

I didn't have my glasses on....

A trip through life with fingers crossed and eternal optimism.


Art, Literature, Poetry, Politics and a little History

Jet Eliot

Travel and Wildlife Adventures

Judith Barrow

Writer & Author

Sophia Riley Kobacker

it's all about the story, possums...

Tropical Affair

Observations of the illusion through the eyes of wonder...


Adventures in Watercolor Painting and Sketching, Watercolour Magazine, with Charlie O'Shields

Luanne Castle's Writer Site

Memoir, poetry, & writing theory

Life in Russia

The Bridge between two countries

London Life With Liz

A lifestyle blog with a little bit of everything.

Brotherly Love

A personal exploration of autism from a brother’s perspective, including family relationships, philosophy, neuroscience, mental health history and ethics

%d bloggers like this: