Left-wing satirist Howard Brenton creates a surprisingly affectionate portrait of the Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, a political history of a career buffeted by events, while leaving a more intimate play of the man still to be written.
Jeremy Irons, making his impressive National debut, is an urbane figure quietly striding through Howard Davies’ epic, noisy production, with a profound sense of decency and regret - an old Etonian who eventually loses his way in a world of shifting values.
In four sharply-defined acts, it opens with Anna Carteret as his pushy mother and Macmillan’s wounding on the Somme in 1916, then flashing forward to 1938 with Terrence Hardiman’s fine cameo as Chamberlain, waving his wretched peace agreement with Hitler before announcing the outbreak of war.
This leads to Ian McNeice as an instantly recognisable Churchill rehearsing the speech that will topple Chamberlain. But the war itself hardly gets a look in, save for a plane crash, vividly staged, as we leap forward to an engrossing account of the 1956 Suez crisis, gung-ho Macmillan encouraging Eden (a suave Anthony Calf) to decisive action, then turning pragmatic politician under pressure from Clive Francis as the presidential Eisenhower.
The closing act portrays Macmillan’s prime ministerial years of lost achievement, overshadowed by the Profumo scandal, and his shrewd emergence as an elder statesman. Here the scandalous liaison between Anna Chancellor’s Dorothy, Macmillan’s adulterous wife, and her rakish lover Bob Boothby (Robert Glenister in a fat suit) comes to the fore. Sadly Brenton’s play fails to mention Eileen O’Casey as Macmillan’s long-term source of feminine solace. Nor do we see his political rival Rab Butler. Instead the irritating presence of Macmillan as a Guards officer (Pip Carter) hangs around to make less than profound observations about life and death.
But the play itself offers many telling parallels between then and now.