From the minute you enter the Royal Exchange, Toby Frow’s Edward II is an experience. A band plays, drinks are served in a 1950s-style bar and members of the ensemble dance in the foyer. This upbeat intro to the evening lulls you into a false sense of security.
Because once the narrative begins, you witness a Royal Family spiralling out of control. Edward II (Chris New) refuses to let go of his ally and lover Piers Gaveston (Samuel Collings). His wife, Queen Isabella (Emma Cunniffe), silently waits until she cannot take his barbed insults any more. Soon a plot is hatched that results in deception and murder.
Frow directs with a sense of urgency and creates a thriller of epic proportions, which shocks and stuns you into submission. Ben Stones’ striking set design appears simple but it becomes a box of delights as the play gets under way.
Chris New conveys Edward’s confidence when his lover is by his side, and this contrasts beautifully with his rapid descent once the conspiracy begins. Samuel Collings has the swagger even though we do not truly understand Gaveston’s ultimate ambition. The actor fares better as the cold yet softly-spoken killer, Lightborn.
Emma Cunniffe explores the Queen’s pain and rejection incredibly well and we see her driven to despair and ultimately revenge. Jonah Rzeskiewicz is a revelation as Prince Edward – the King in waiting – as he conveys his undying loyalty towards his father whatever the cost.
Edward II is a gripping and scintillating production.