Flanders Mare

Zoë Lewis
Sound Theatre
(2005)

Publicity image

This is another success for Kit Productions at the newly-opened Sound studio theatre, just off Leicester Square, a bawdy Pythonesque comedy based on the historical events surrounding Henry the Eighth’s marriage to Anne of Cleves.

When Henry clapped eyes on his fourth bride he dubbed her the ‘Flanders mare’. He had gone in disguise to get a first glimpse of Anne as she travelled from Folkestone to London, and decided right away she could never become his sexual partner, even though she played a mean hand at cards and was an amusing conversationalist.

The King put the blame for his mistake on the Hans Holbein portrait, a glammed-up image of a big-bosomed girl with sleepy, come-to-bed eyes. But it was vital not to offend the German alliance, so the royal wedding went ahead regardless of the king’s distaste.

For Anne it all worked out happily ever after. She gained an annulment for non-consummation and the right to remain in England, not to mention a decent pension and a royal palace as alimony — a much better fate than having her head chopped off like the luckless Katherine Howard who soon took her place.

Zoe Lewis has turned these events into a right royal romp: a richly rude version of the private sex life of King Henry, while his courtiers as New Labour advisors, spin their half truths in the Palace of Whitehall just opposite 10 Downing Street, talking 21st-century style, but rigged out in period costumes, plus the odd sweatshirt and black leather trews.

Alan Cox’s eight-strong cast tackle the comic possibilities with tremendous relish, led by Keith Allen as Henry with a six-day stubble, a robust, downmarket King whose zest for sex and a good time continues undimmed, while his appetite for marriage has flagged following Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth.

Karl Stimpson portrays the scheming Thomas Cromwell as a Mandelson ‘New Kingship’ fixer, a creepy counsellor in love with his master — in this version his youthful bedroom companion — while Duncan Wisbey is both court jester with a guitar and an Alistair Campbell figure, a media-savvy aide with a colourful turn of phrase.

By an oddity of casting Liam McKenna is dead-ringer for the true-life King Henry. But here he plays the painter Holbein, lusting after the Flanders mare and dashing off a flattering image as an expression of his love.

In the performance of the night Pandora Colin as Anne of Cleves is a captivating creature: tall, slim and sloe-eyed, perhaps too clever to pluck the heartstrings of the king, but dressed to kill in sumptuous costumes by designer Kansas Carey, originally created for ‘living history re-enactments’ and a dazzling fashion statement. Her intelligent performance makes me now wish I had seen her one-woman Dorothy Parker on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Completing the principal line-up is pretty Natalie Walker, whose gorgeous Katherine Howard, a good-time girl with a past, plays the King’s ill-fated fifth wife as a pantomime Principal Girl, with delicious moments of flirtatious comedy and double-takes that add hugely to a fun evening, plus Nigel Hastings as her shrewd uncle.

Recommended — but the Sound Theatre run ends on November 5th, so hurry.

Reviewer: John Thaxter