A medieval family Christmas goes wrong

The Lion in Winter Theatre Royal **

It is the 12th century and King Henry II has let his wife, Queen Eleanor, out of prison just in time for Christmas. But this is not a household filled with goodwill to all men. Henry’s three sons are vying for his throne and his mistress, Princess Alais, is insisting on marriage. More than a little brandy – a new invention recently hailed in France – will be required to survive the festive season.

Despite the historical backdrop, James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter is essentially a light-hearted comedy about a family Christmas gone wrong. The set-up is simple and gratingly repetitive. The family members squabble, threaten rebellion and even war – only to swiftly dismiss the histrionics and then begin the process all over again.

This thin premise just about sustains the first half, with the help of box office stars Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley. Lindsay draws on his TV experience and his brutish but endearing King Henry is Tony Soprano, Homer Simpson and the President rolled into one. The punchlines are laboured (“What shall we hang – the holly or each other?”) but Lindsay’s light touch stops the heavy-handed humour sinking altogether.

Lumley, swooping around in a blue velvet cloak, reminds one of a kindlier witch from Snow White, as she cackles into her looking glass. In fact, all these broadly drawn characters recall fairy-tale figures – only without the requisite charm. The sons – strong, brave and cowardly – could be the three dwarves as they compete for their father’s love and throne. It is only Joseph Drake, as the preposterously dim Prince John, who finds some big laughs in an otherwise limited role.


But this is an essentially an (over) extended sketch and, although Trevor Nunn’s direction is efficient, there is little he can do to spice up this dry Christmas turkey.

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Until January 28