The Knight From Nowhere/The Bells, Park Theatre, review: ‘Preposterous melodrama’

Andrew Shepherd in The Knight From Nowhere. Picture: Katie Cotterell

Andrew Shepherd in The Knight From Nowhere. Picture: Katie Cotterell - Credit: Archant

A tedious, thin thespian tale and outdated Victorian drama make for a miserable double header, says David Winskill.

We’ve all heard of Henry Irving but few know anything about him other than he was the first knight of the British Theatre.

Playwright Andrew Shepherd tries to prompt better knowledge and understanding of the boy who started life as the West Country John Brodribb.

The device for the rehearsal of his story is straight out of A Matter of Life and Death. The keeper of the Pearly Gates (played with legalistic aplomb by Simon Blake) spots a clerical mix-up so creating the opportunity for Irving’s life to flash past the 60 pairs of eyes in the audience.

If only it did flash.

Shepherd’s linear narrative – boyhood, parental disapproval, moved to London, learns trade, gets wife, leaves wife, wins recognition, gets opportunity, becomes a theatre manager, meets Ellen Terry, health and career fail, dies, statue selected by an adoring nation – is uninspiring.

He also plays the thespian as a sort of fixated maniac: “I can play only one role – myself – and I do it so well!”

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The second half performance of Leopold Lewis’ The Bells, a preposterous Victorian melodrama which reminded us just how far English theatre has developed, was Mr Irving’s big break, possibly because anyone who could make such thin material watchable must have had the X-Factor.

There were several difficulties with a piece, not least its confusion of styles (National Theatre of Brent or National Theatre?) and deliberate but lusty overacting by all and sundry (including boisterous Brian Blessed reincarnation Will Seaward) served up with poor stage craft and countless fluffed lines (First Knight nerves?) left me wondering whether this was send-up or homage.

Along the way there were some fine performances and very funny lines: but little light cast on the motivations of this quintessential actor. Imperatives are rarely simply imperatives.

A few weeks ago the Park staged Lady Anna All At Sea: the story of Trollope with one of his novels woven into the action. Funny, engaging and instructive: lessons for us all.

Rating: 2/5 stars

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