Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Elizabeth and Raleigh – Late but Live

Stewart Lee
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
(2008)

Publicity photo

Certainly live but not particularly late, this one-hour, no-interval production looks designed to fill a gap in the frenetic timetable of an Edinburgh Festival audience, but is slightly at odds with more regular theatre time-tabling. Starting at 7:30 on a Saturday night it scarcely offers a full evening’s entertainment, and without any late-night tit-bits on offer to pair with it, it felt curiously adrift. Perhaps this accounts for decidedly underpowered audience numbers, tactfully clustered together at the front of a theatre too large for them or for the production. A chatty two-hander like this really cries out for an intimate cabaret setting, and I would guess that Northern Stage booked it into Stage One, their largest playing space, in expectation of a much bigger take-up.

And it was certainly an attractive prospect, promising the irreverence and immediacy of TV’s flourishing modern stand-up style allied to a zany, knowing (and cross-dressing) mode that embodies the energy of the Festival fringe. Unfortunately, this combination can rapidly dip from the inspired to the annoying, and despite a script by Stewart Lee, this was on the wrong side of the equation.

Raleigh (Miles Jupp), not at all surprised to find himself in the 21st century and accompanied only by a silent but musical South American slave called Prince Tinymeat, chats unwinningly to the audience about his fame, his aspirations to marry the queen, his birthplace of Budleigh Salterton and his potatoes. A short medley of potato songs (“Spud, spud me do”) sets the tone. He’s xenophobic, egocentric and refers to his listeners as “you guys”, but occasionally his contemporary characterisation slips towards a more Elizabethan attitude or bon mot (“My aim is the aim of owls, to wit – to woo.”) The opportunities offered by this dual standard might have been a strength of the show, but ended up as nothing more edgy than a PowerPoint presentation of Raleigh receiving various awards in company with William Kempe, a jester who could get an anti-Semitic message into a Morris dance. (Apparently – all we get are still mug shots of Jimmy Carr in period costume).

Simon Munnery as Queen Elizabeth makes an auditorium entrance that would have been grander had there been more audience to cheer him on. Raleigh’s attempts to make us play along with some sense of occasion fell pretty flat – from the start the laughter was muted and couldn’t hope to fill the large empty space behind us. The dialogue between the two certainly had some good lines and effective silliness (Elizabeth bounces on a trampette to demonstrate her anger, then beheads a large potato with an axe) but the tone was sufficiently variable to prevent the show from building up the necessary head of steam. It needed to carry us along from one laugh to the next, but it felt oddly hesitant and flatly repetitive where it should have been streamlined. A little apparent uncertainty on stage can be edgy and riveting, but here it felt slightly embarrassing.

And this peaked when, about forty minutes into our scheduled hour, just as the pace might have picked up in a gallop towards the end, Elizabeth suddenly announced an interval and the cast wandered off into the wings. Was this planned, had something gone wrong or was it just part of the show, a game where we were intended to stay in our seats and watch an amusing “pretend” interval unfold on stage? Nope – we were left looking about in confusion as the lights went up and it slowly became apparent that while the actors were taking a break, this had come as a complete surprise to everyone else (including front-of-house and bar staff). As nobody had been warned to order interval drinks, the immediate result was a long queue and much desperate questioning as to what was going on. It’s no criticism of Northern Stage’s staff or organisation to say that this hiatus spoiled what was already a patchy event. They rose to the occasion, but this clearly wasn’t going to be the one-hour performance as advertised, and attempts to discover how long it was now scheduled to last produced the risible response of “seventy minutes.” Even the usher relaying this felt moved to comment that by the time everyone had returned to their seats, this would mean a second half of about ten minutes.

This is just the sort of tension that isn’t helpful in the theatre, and there were a few more empty seats for the second half – which began with a rehash of the end of Act One! I waited out the full promised seventy minutes, by which time our protagonists were wearing large illuminated ship hats and wafting around in clouds of dry ice pretending to be the Spanish Armada. The end didn’t seem nigh and I had made other plans on the basis that the show would offer a swift hour’s amusement and then away. I’m afraid the temptation was too much – I slipped into the night without too much regret, so if there was a spectacular finale, I missed it. It was an attractive idea with a few good laughs but honestly, the second series of Blackadder had already covered much of this territory before and even Raleigh’s crass modern laddishness didn’t add enough to freshen up the material or create any compelling rhythms of verbal wit or humorous characterisation.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson