Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1
It has been a while since Howard Brenton has had it so good. The radical playwright of the ’70s and ’80s made a triumphant return to the stage a couple of years ago when the National premiered his surprisingly respectful play about the biblical figure Paul.
Now Brenton turns to a politician with a portrait of Harold Macmillan. Played by Jeremy Irons with twig-dry self-deprecating charm, the Prime Minister — both in waiting and in power — comes across as a fundamentally good egg. According to Brenton, Macmillan’s greatest influence was his time in the trenches during the First World War. Nothing — not even his snobbish American mother (Anna Carteret), who declared that her son lacked the ruthless “it” factor to take him to the top — made him more determined to become Prime Minister.
So Irons’s Macmillan is shadowed by the presence of his younger self (Pip Carter) — an army captain who mocks his older alter-ego for his absence of ambition and for tolerating the affair between his wife (Anna Chancellor) and fellow Tory Bob Boothby (Robert Glenister).
With a play featuring four PMs and one American president — Ian McNeice’s Churchill is hugely entertaining — there was always the risk, happily avoided, of a play infected by mimicry. But Howard Davies’s skilful production is hindered though by a repetitive dance motif that establishes 20th-century eras with sometimes lazily choreographed waltzes, jitterbugs and twists.
When the cast break into be-bop, it is time for the Suez crisis. And it is here that Brenton provides a fascinating view of a period when Britain, under the nervous-wreck leadership of Eden (Anthony Calf), was more closely allied to Israel than America.
Twenty-five years ago, Brenton wrote a play that argued it was ordinary people who won the Second World War and not the likes of Churchill. It is a point of view that Never So Good, which is overwhelmingly concerned with leaders, their dilemmas and their decisions, and much less so by the people affected by them, might have benefited from.
But as a modern history play, Never So Good — as much a tribute to, as a portrait of its subject — works well. Sometimes superbly well. And the play confirms Macmillan’s reputation as an old-school leader stranded by crumbling deference just when the ’60s started to swing. “My problem,” he says Irons’s Macmillan with disarming honesty, “is that I don’t understand the time we’re living in.” (Tel: 020 7452 3000)