Christmas. A time for gathering the family together, playing games, drinking mulled wine and concealing daggers.
Okay, maybe the daggers aren’t as synonymous with the festive season as crackers and mince pies, but in the court of Henry II, as Joanna Lumley’s Eleanor of Aquitaine points out, daggers are de rigueur. They are 1183’s must have accessory; the forerunner to the iPad.
Here, at the end of the 12th century, is a family with issues, playing games with each other rather than squabbling about the intricacies of Trivial Pursuit. Dad, Henry II, has locked Mum, Eleanor, up in a tower for the last decade, releasing her only to join the family for Christmas. He wants John to inherit his crown. She favours Richard. All three boys, Geoffrey being the middle child, want to be king. Then there is Dad’s mistress, who is actually promised to Richard, and her brother – the extended family IS over for the festivities – King Philip of France. If you take away the trappings of royalty, there’s enough deception, shouting and inter-family fighting to knock the EastEnders Christmas special off its perch.
In fact, crowns, clothing and Stephen Brimson Lewis’s towering cathedral-like set aside, there is little regal about this winter gathering. The familial fracas could really be about anything, what is important is the fighting, the vying for position, the one-upmanship and the sense of victory.
There’s actually a lot of the sitcom Christmas special about the production, not least its leading stars, Lumley and Robert Lindsay (Henry II), who are both best known for their comic TV appearances. Lindsay’s light, carefree touch with a punch line proves its worth time after time as the plotting king, but does put one in the mind of My Family’s patriarch Ben Harper, while Lumley, in her most heightened moments, edges towards the caricaturing performance of Ab Fab’s Patsy.
Even the family setting lends itself to the sitcom feel; their three sons being the angry, brooding Prince Richard (Tom Bateman), the forgotten, plotting middle child Prince Geoffrey (James Norton) and the stroppy teenage Prince John (Joseph Drake), who even looks like a modern teenager with his sleeves too long for his arms. A family with three competitive siblings locked up together for Christmas; it’s sitcom heaven.
But it’s not. For the most part, The Lion In Winter is a drama earning its keep on deception, plotting bluff, counter bluff and more lies than you could shake a corrupt politician at. As such, it could probably do with a stronger roar and sharper teeth. But as Christmas specials go, it gives theatregoers a family with more problems than their own, offers loved actors giving performances you know you’ll enjoy and leaves audiences with a festive smile on their faces.