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Saint George and the Dragon review at the National Theatre, London – ‘disappointing’

John Heffernan in Saint George and the Dragon. Photo: Johan Persson John Heffernan in Saint George and the Dragon. Photo: Johan Persson

The cavernous Olivier is a difficult space to fill. Its size seems to encourage an epic sensibility in the writers tasked to populate it, resulting in large, sweeping, and often very long, plays about the English condition.

This is the second Olivier play this year, after DC Moore’s Common, in which a young male writer draws on folklore to tell a story of this land, its history, its myths and its people. In Rory Mullarkey’s new play, the story of George, slayer of dragons and saviour of the people, becomes enfolded into our nation’s narrative

Saint George and the Dragon is split into three parts. In the first, George – played by John Heffernan wearing a wig that makes him look a bit like the offspring of Steve Coogan and Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin – is weary from travelling and scarred from past dragon battles, but he dons makeshift armour to save the life of the woman he loves and free the people from a tyrannical fire-breather.

Having triumphed he is called away and when he returns home, he finds his country much changed, the fields enclosed, locomotives chugging across the land and small boys being mangled in satanic mills. The dragon he thought slain has returned.

In the third and final section, George finds himself in a version of modern England in which his heroism and nobility are out of place.

The dragon takes different shapes. In the first section, Julian Bleach plays him with a campy Alan Rickman swagger and distinctly reptilian claws. In the second, he is more or less human, and harder to kill as a result, in the third he has mutated once more. He no longer has form, he has seeped into the earth and become one with the city. A sharp sword and good heart will no longer cut it when it comes to slaying this beast.

Mullarkey’s previous plays include The Wolf from the Door, a spiky, sly comedy of English revolt, as well as a linguistically nimble version of The Oresteia for Shakespeare’s Globe, but he feels out of his depth here. And while Mullarkey’s play is less scattergun and tangled than Common, it’s also more problematic.

There are a few moments of impish humour and in the first section we are treated to the spectacle of dragon-heads on zip-wires, but they’re rare lights in a long night. The third section of the play, the one set in the present, is the most deflating. Modern malaise here consists chiefly of a tipsy hen party and a group of rowdy football fans. There’s a brief, tip-toe discussion about what the cross of Saint George has come to represent but this is soon abandoned in favour of a pub bust-up.

Designer Rae Smith has dotted the curving stage with munchkin houses that sprout chimneys as the play progresses. This makes Lyndsey Turner’s production resemble the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony done on a school play budget.

Heffernan is an actor of delicacy and grace and he does his damnedest to bring some spark to proceedings. His amiable presence enlivens things considerably, but it’s not enough to salvage this disappointing dragon-as-allegory play.

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John Heffernan stars in an ambitious but ultimately tiresome modern folk tale