King Of Hearts @ Hampstead Theatre, London

cast list
Zahra Ahmadi
Alister Cameron
Jeff Rawle
Christian Brassington
Toby Dantzic
Caroline Loncq
Roddy Maude-Roxby
Anthony O’Donnell
Ben Righton
Justin Salinger

directed by
Ramin Gray and Max Stafford-Clark
<What happens if the heir to the throne should (gasp) fall in love with a Muslim girl? Not just fall in love, mind, but want to marry her and even ponder converting to Islam himself.

This is the premise behind Alistair Beaton’s new play at Hampstead Theatre, an inventive if rather over-egged farce in which British multicultural society gets a bit of a bashing.

In a near and familiar future, an accident has left the King in a coma, and the labour Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the two young princes have gathered in Sandringham where their father’s life support is due to be switched off. But that’s not all they have to deal with. It turns out that the older of the brothers (the decent, level-headed one as oppose to his flash, boozy younger sibling who, for the purposes of the play, are called ‘Richard’ and ‘Arthur’ respectively) has not been using his weekly fencing lessons to fence. He’s actually been, chastely, dating a young Muslim girl called Nasreen. A constitutional crisis looms when he declares his desire to make her his wife.

As the set-up suggests, Beaton enjoys pressing bad-taste buttons, but fortunately most of the time the jokes just about hit home. If the rather well-to-do Hampstead Theatre crowd is a reliable social barometer than one-liners about same-sex blow jobs and Ricky Gervais-esque racial tight-rope walking are A-OK these days, but a lone gag about the death of Princess Di can still elicit a shocked groan.

The main problem with King Of Hearts is that it never seems quite sure if it wants to be a satire or a full-on farce. Beaton raises some interesting points about the relationship between church and state and the limits of tolerance in modern Britain, but he seems unable to stray too far from stock farcical situations: men hiding behind sofas clad in just their pants, and so forth.

While do I wish the play had had sharper satirical teeth, I can’t deny that it was very entertaining. There are a good handful of laugh-out-loud moments, and the weaker scenes are more than made up for by the competent direction of Out Of Joint’s Max Stafford-Clark and Ramin Gray and some superb performances from the ensemble cast. Justin Salinger is suitably Blair-esque as the PM; Jeff Rawle is on good form as the hangdog Tory leader, as is Caroline Loncq as an acid-tongued government advisor. The white-haired and pink-cheeked Roddy Maude-Roxby is brilliant as the beatific Archbishop who doesn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God in any literal sense.

After a snappy first half, momentum is lost somewhat after the interval and the tacked-on epilogue rather confirms the idea that perhaps Beaton came up with this intriguing scenario and then didn’t quite know what to do with it. Having siad that, it’s still slicker and more entertaining than Whipping It Up, which recently transferred to the West End, and benefits from, unlike the last Royal Farce to hit London stages, a complete lack of involvement from Toby Young.

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