The more [Howard] Brenton researched the man once dubbed the great actor-manager of British politics, the more he came to admire him and this gripping, compassionate and often delightfully comic play strikes me as his finest achievement to date.
Jeremy Irons gives one of the finest performances of his career as the mature husband and politician, combining charisma with vulnerability, high principle with low cunning, and political success with personal hurt. The pain caused by his wife Dorothy’s long affair with Bob Boothby is caught with especially fine and affecting delicacy, but Irons also captures Macmillan’s humour, intelligence and resilience, and by the end you feel you have seen a complex man in the round.
Director Howard Davies seizes all his chances, achieving many virtuosic moments in a production that mixes the intimate and the epic. A sedate dance at The Ritz gradually morphs into the battle fields of the First World War while the story of the Suez crisis plays out like a gripping thriller.
Among the supporting performances, Anna Chancellor’s guilt-stricken Dorothy, Robert Glenister’s coarse Bob Boothby and Ian McNiece’s wicked impersonation of Churchill shine particularly brightly in a drama of rare ambition, intelligence and human sympathy.
27 March 2008, Charles Spencer
Brenton’s play presents us with a dual image of Macmillan. At first his older self looks wanly back on his Eton school days, his flirtation with Catholicism and homosexuality, and his experience of the 1914-18 war in which he was five times wounded.
But, as the senior Macmillan slowly ascends the greasy pole, it is the younger self who looks mockingly on at the cuckolded husband, the long years on the political margins, and the duplicities over Suez, before the eventual ascension to the premiership.
Howard Davies’ production marshals the dance-punctuated proceedings with cinematic fluency. One gets a valuable history-lesson and a plausible portrait of Macmillan.’
27 March 2008, Michael Billington
The play is two or three cuts above the usual theatrical bio.
There are consistently good supporting performances, from Anthony Calf’s vain, edgy Eden to Ian McNeice’s Churchill. And all along [Jeremy] Irons manages genuinely difficult feats. To be self-effacing yet in command. To aim for power without quite wanting it. To yean for a better world, perhaps even one where the privates he saw sacrificing themselves in the trenches were able to take democratic control of their own lives, yet to be at ease in the mess of party politics. To attain success yet see through it and, at times, wish for death. To watch what he suspects is his own moral decline. To be inscrutable. In short, to be Harold Macmillan.
27 March 2008, Benedict Nightingale
Howard Brenton has sketched a sympathetic, spell-binding portrait of Harold Macmillan. A beguiling, bespectacled Jeremy Irons concentrates on conveying what Brenton reveals of Macmillan’s inner life: the guilt about surviving the first war and the man’s inner neurotic sense of inferiority.
I found myself stirred and moved by Never So Good, with its deft and humorous encapsulation of the future premier’s early life. Brenton refracts the events through the prism of the old man’s memory.
Howard Davies’ expressionistic production works like a dream and, in a sense, is one. Vicky Mortimer’s beautiful, bleak stage is bare but for a row of huge, high doors ranged all along one wall, which open to reveal stacked, mobile shelves of documents. Mark Henderson’s superb lighting offers dreamy shafts of illumination – on figures in St. James’ Park, on tangoing dancers beneath chandeliers at the Ritz who scatter to the warning cry of ‘gas’.
Never So Good thrillingly dramatises an unsolved problem about our role in the world.
27 March 2008, Nicholas de Jongh
Howard Brenton has written an elegiac and profoundly human portrait of the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan…He is, in Brenton’s likeable, amusing version, a sympathetic mix of the ridiculous and the tragic.
Howard Davies’ direction is suitably epic, rising to the challenge of staging 40 years of history, encompassing two World Wars, the crumbling of the Empire, the Suez crisis and the damn of the swinging Sixties. The changing decades are rung in with dance – a spine-tingling waltz towards war, a jubilant victory lindy-hop, and a shimmy into the 1960s – and there are magnificent set pieces, including a moving Somme sequence.
As Macmillan, an unrecognisable Jeremy Irons perfectly captures a man who is fatally out of step with his time. His stuffy drawl through his soup-strainer moustache is spot on, as is his body language; his little jig when he finally gets one over on his wife’s lover Boothby is a delight.
He is well supported by Pip Carter as the youthful (but still absurdly old before his time) Macmillan who dogs him mentally throughout his life. In an excellent ensemble cast, Ian McNeice’s corpulent Churchill provides nice comic relief while Robert Glenister’s Boothby makes a horribly convincing journey from slick rake to bloated old duffer.’
27 March 2008, Alice Jones
Jeremy Irons, in his National Theatre debut, gives a touching an moving performance as the emotional and troubled Macmillan. He also highlighted much of his political cunning, even his artful prowess.
Irons manages, with a gentle interpretation, to let Macmillan’s essential decency come through. You feel for the man, particularly in his scenes with Lady Dorothy. The sheer complexity of their relationship and of Macmillan himself sits at the centre of this thoughtful play.
27 March 2008, Paul Callan