Henry IV Part 1

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Lowry, Salford

Prince Hal (Alex Hassell) plays his father while Falstaff (Antony Sher) plays him in the inn Credit: RSC
Jasper Britton as Henry IV confronts Antony Byrne as Worcester Credit: Kevin Dobson / RSC
Hotspur (Trevor White) lays his head on the knee of Lady Percy (Jennifer Kirby) as Lady Mortimer (Nia Gwynne) sings in the background Credit: Kevin Dobson / RSC

The RSC has brought its Henry IV double bill to Salford with Sir Antony Sher as Falstaff—clearly, from the publicity, the star of the show, as he was in Shakespeare's time.

The play documents a rebellion against Henry (Jasper Britton) from some of those who helped him take the throne from Richard II. Leading the rebels is hot-headed young Harry Percy, or Hotspur, (Trevor White) together with his father, the Earl of Northumberland (Sean Chapman), and his uncle, the Earl of Worcester (Antony Byrne), plus Edmund Mortimer (Robert Gilbert), Hotspur's brother-in-law and the rebels' favourite to take the throne.

Henry's son Hal (Alex Hassell), however, is not made of the same heroic material as Hotspur, instead having a reputation for drinking, whoring and taking part in robberies with a group of scoundrels led by the rotund, drunken thief, Sir John Falstaff.

Sher's Falstaff is every bit as weighty as the script suggests, but he is surprisingly frail and slow of speech and of movement, which actually works rather well. He certainly gets all of the humour out of every situation and just about gets some sympathy from the audience, but he isn't the most likeable of characters.

Hassell's Hal first appears in bed with two girls and clearly delights in the seedier side of his life. Even when he reforms, he doesn't become entirely kingly but still has a glint in his eye and looks as though all of this is new to him. Perhaps he's saving the rest for Part 2.

White's Hotspur is a bit of a one-note character, and the note is anger, which he plays constantly. He does get some humour out of the character sometimes, but there are parts that are played for laughs and aren't really believable.

There are strong performances also from Britton as the King and, on the rebel side, from Byrne and Chapman.

Gregory Doran's production is clear and well-paced for the most part, but some parts feel a little uneven. The robbery is rather pantomimic and unconvincing, and Terry King's beautifully choreographed fights are reproduced with care rather than aggression in the big battle scenes.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's design has some lovely detail, and Paul Englishby's music, performed by a 7-piece live band and vocalist, adds a great deal of atmosphere.

While it isn't as compelling and powerful as Doran's Julius Caesar, which came to The Lowry two years ago, it's an entertaining and impressive production that is certainly worth seeing.

And tomorrow, there's Part 2...

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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