Review: Henry VI Part Two: The Houses of York and Lancaster (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

Backbiting and political manoeuvring provided the thrilling backdrop to The Houses of York and Lancaster, the second in the unmissable Globe Theatre Bardathon that played out at the Theatre Royal.

This pared down but exciting production of Shakespeare’s three-part history cycle telling the tragic story of Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses stepped up a gear in the second part, with so much crammed into two hours that the audience was left breathless.

Director Nick Bagnall might well offend the purists, but the cuts were well-judged and the pace so fast that only the crustiest critic might object. This was pruned Shakespeare on a grand scale and something we see in the theatre all too infrequently.

The joy of seeing this 14-member company perform plays with so many characters was that we had the opportunity to see some tremendous versatility. It is to be hoped that the actors all wrote to casting directors urging them to see the trilogy as the performances were uniformly the best auditions they are ever likely to give.

As Graham Butler’s King Henry matured we had a sense of this last Lancastrian’s passion for his royal role, yet with a tragic understanding of his inability to live up to expectations. He was particularly well-matched by Mary Doherty’s storming performance as Queen Margaret, a warrior queen more masterful and even masculine than her husband.

Garry Cooper’s Brighton groupies, who will remember him in the film Quadrophenia, will have been impressed by his extraordinary range: from Henry’s uncle the noble Duke of Gloucester, who fell victim to the machinations of his rivals, and whose death precipitated the unfolding drama, to a number of short-lived but memorable characters.

Brendan O’Hea continued to play the smiling villain, the somehow likeable but overly ambitious Richard Plantagenet, now supported by his sons Edward (Patrick Myles) and Richard (an already striking performance by Simon Harrison, as yet showing no signs of the malice of Richard III, and all the more notable after his portrayal of the Dauphin in Part One) .

High praise too for Roger Evans, first a gloating Duke of Suffolk, beheaded at the end of the first half – and an amusing touch for him to come on stage at the start of the second as the laddish rebel Jack Cade, dismiss the prop head, and start a rousing song of rebellion which it was impossible for the audience not to join in. This was a terrific performance, lightening the mood, yet capturing the heart of this amiable but ultimately cowardly popular hero.

Mike Grady’s snarling Bishop of Winchester met his end in this part in a particularly effective and haunting death scene, while Beatrix Romilly – so wonderful as Joan of Arc in the first part – played the misguided Duchess of Gloucester with sincerity and pathos.

As the royal regalia was stripped away as the play progressed the stage was set for the enthralling climax – a brutal battle serving as a curtain-raiser to the final part of this watchable and pleasing trilogy.

David Guest