Theatre Review: THE JAMES PLAYS – The Lowry, Salford

James II from THE JAMES PLAYS. Image Credit: Manuel Harlan

James II from THE JAMES PLAYS. Image Credit: Manuel Harlan

Following its successful run at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, Rona Munro’s award-winning THE JAMES PLAYS heads to The Lowry this weekend as part of a national tour.

The vividly imagined trilogy brings to life three generations of Stewart kings – James I, II and III – who ruled Scotland from 1406 to 1488.

The first play, JAMES I: THE KEY WILL KEEP THE LOCK tells the story of James I (Steven Miller), the heir to the throne who was captured when he was only 13 and became King of Scots in an English prison. 18 years later, with a ransom on his head and a new English bride on his arm, James I returns home to find his land in disarray and his nobles ready to tear him apart at the first sign of weakness. Bold, brutal and barbaric, JAMES I is the most exciting play of the trilogy, setting both the tone and the standard with its witty script, dramatic plot and first class acting.

The second play JAMES II: DAY OF THE INNOCENTS traces the troubled history of James II (Andrew Rothney), a child king at the centre of a vicious game between the country’s most powerful families. Darker and more serious than JAMES I, JAMES II is seen through a child’s eyes, as scenes repeat themselves as vicious nightmares and the demons of the past come back to haunt the King. With its shifting realities, this is the weakest of the plays but what it lacks in playful wit, it makes up for in boisterous theatricality.

The third and final play JAMES III: THE TRUE MIRROR NEED MORE HERE tells the story of the irresistible and charismatic James III (Matthew Pidgeon), a man with big dreams and no budget to realise any of them. Colourful, brash and unpredictable, this is the most entertaining play of the trilogy, winning over the audience with its stunning 21st century costumes, witty and humorous script and clever use of modern pop songs such as Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Pharrell William’s Happy and Human League’s Don’t You Want Me. It also turns its eye on the women of the royal court with Malin Crepin as the resourceful and resilient Margaret of Denmark, James III’s pious queen.

James I from THE JAMES PLAYS. Image Credit: Manuel Harlan

James I from THE JAMES PLAYS. Image Credit: Manuel Harlan

Clever, ambitious and surprisingly modern, THE JAMES PLAYS are some of the finest history plays ever penned. Rona Mora’s writing is fresh, witty and first-class, with all three plays boasting an individuality and appeal of their own. JAMES I is dramatic and gripping, JAMES II is dark and serious while JAMES III is witty and entertaining. Alone, they entertain, enchant and enthral but together, they create a complex and compelling narrative about a virtually unknown period of Scottish history.

What makes THE JAMES PLAYS so special is the way that it is staged. Jon Bausor’s stark semi-circular set puts the audience at heart of the action, with special on-stage seats offering the audience a unique perspective as they share the performer’s space. The stage is dominated by a two-storey-high sword, stuck into the ground like a gauntlet which brings its own drama as blood trickles down the blade during a bloody scene in JAMES I and fire pours from its handle as a nightmare ensues in JAMES II.

The plays are performed by a talented ensemble of 20 actors who star in all three plays. Steven Miller impresses as James I, the poet, lover and law-maker trying to prove himself a King among his nobles while Andrew Rothney shines as James II, the child king who becomes the prize in a vicious game between the country’s most powerful families. But it is Matthew Pidgeon who steals the show as the extravagant and charismatic James III, the King who spends most of his time chasing women (and men) rather than ruling the country. His portrayal of Henry V in JAMES I is equally entertaining, winning over the audience with his quick wit and sarcasm.

The three kings are supported by a talented cast including a welcome line of mighty women with Blythe Duff excelling as the vindictive Isabella Stewart in James I and II, Malin Crepin delivering a superb performance as James III’s pious queen Margaret of Denmark and Rosemary Boyle impressing as the headstrong Joan, wife to James I as well as Mary, the young French queen and wife of James II.

When seen together, the trilogy lasts for a whopping 7+ hours but don’t let this put you off. Director Laurie Sansom’s gripping production boasts enough drive, drama and entertainment to keep you gripped throughout. The recurring themes between the plays also help to keep things interesting, as we watch the characters evolve over time, particularly Balvenie of the Douglas family, played by the excellent Peter Forbes, who turns from a wimping, beggar of a man in JAMES I into a power hungry demon in JAMES II, playing his devious game behind the scenes.

Bold, ambitious and wickedly amusing, few productions can match up to the genius of THE JAMES PLAYS. Rona Munro’s modern cycle of history is one of the most gripping and clever historical dramas I’ve ever seen and I’d happily pay full-price to watch it again. A superb production with a superb cast. Don’t miss it.

5 out of 5 stars

THE JAMES PLAYS runs at The Lowry until 24 April 2016.