Review by Daz Gale
A new comedy hits the West End as The Crown Jewels premieres, ahead of a UK tour. Featuring a cast full of instantly recognisable faces, some of whom you don’t often find in the theatre, there was a lot of intrigue about this show which hopes to be another jewel in the crown of a glittering West End. But would it be able to steal audiences hearts by being royally funny or would we find it an act of treason?
Based on a true story, The Crown Jewels is set in 1671 and tells of one of the most audacious heist attempts in British history as Colonel Thomas Blood sets out to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London, ahead of King Charles II’s 10 year jubilee. With a bit of (attempted) murder thrown in, it might not seem like the greatest recipe for a laugh, but the silliness is ramped up to provide as much hilarity as possible… to varying effect.
There is much to dissect about The Crown Jewels – both good and bad. You have probably noticed the star rating at the top which gives away where this review is going, but that’s not to say the show isn’t without its merit. Most notably, the cast are full of some of the talented people in the world of theatre, television and comedy and do the best they can with the roles they are given.
Mel Giedroyc gets another chance to shine on stage, proving a great knack for comic timing paeticularly in a scene-stealing moment as a French noblewoman. Aidan McArdle is a standout as Colonel Blood, and the always incredible Carrie Hope Fletcher delightd with her dual role of Elizabeth Edwards and Lady of the Bedchamber, once again showing off her unmistakable vocals on a smattering of musical moments. Sadly, her stage time is more limited than you might expect, not being used to her full potential. Similarly, Joe Thomas and Neil Morrissey both suffer woefully underwritten characters that give both of them very little to do and reducing them to essentially nothing more than scenery, which is a crime in itself.
As great as the cast are, they are very much limited by the writing from Simon Nye which is, regrettably, subpar. Illogical, inaccessible, inconsistent and, at times, incoherent, it’s a bit of a mess, to put it mildly. It feels as if the premise of the show was built around a one line synopsis of the true story, and the rest of it is made up as it goes along. That isn’t always a bad thing with fictionalised accounts of true story lending themselves well to hilarity. Sadly though, here it all feels a bit too underwritten and as if nobody really understood what was going on and what needs to be done to translate the story to the stage. Much of the comic elements falls flat, with punchlines not delivering, sight gags just don’t feel good enough and recurring jokes that become unfunnier each time. That’s not to say there isn’t a few good jokes in there somewhere – they are just buried amongst a lot more misses.The story plods along, never quite understanding key beats necessary in theatre with a baffling end of act one moment and unsatisfying ending. Another issue with the writing is its pacing which suffers from a slow start only to ramp up the quality in the latter parts of act one, only to completely fall apart in a wildly inconsistent second act.
Where the show starts to shine is when it completely disregards the script and allows ad-libbing and improvisation into the mix. The Crown Jewels is a star vehicle for Al Murray, and he truly runs away with it. Playing both Charles II and Talbot Edwards, his understanding of what works in comedy makes even the most tumultuous of lines draw a laugh in a performance that captivates, even when the writing fails. Where he truly comes alive is when he gets to showcase his stand up comedy skills, interacting with unsuspecting audience members in unscripted, spontaneous moments which without a doubt proved to be the funniest and most exciting bits of the show. Unfortunately, these moments were too few and far between and had me wishing Al Murray had been involved in writing the script, or better yet, they did away with it altogether and made it up as they went along – as I felt that might have led to a stronger show.
Carrie Hope Fletcher’s musical moments were a mixed bag, composed by Grant Olding with lyrics by Simon Nye and Grant Olding, it led to catchy opening number ‘Praise Him’ (which may stay in your head for days, earworm that it is) and another fairly decent song in the first act, all performed with gusto from one of the West Ends brightest and most talented performers. The song Carrie is given to close the show with was less successful, however, feeling like not only a waste of her talents but nowhere near good enough to be performed on a major West End stage. Despite this, the music remained one of the stronger elements of the production – perhaps making this more of a musical would have created a more consistent show tonally?
Sean Foley’s direction led itself to some amusing moments, particularly with the overzealous supporting cast moving the stage around. While Michael Taylors set design may not be the most exciting, his costume design is much better with cast members looking resplendent in all their period costumes, particularly Al Murray as the King and Mel Giedroyc’s Noble Frenchwoman.
The Crown Jewels is a frustrating show to watch. In theory, they have all the elements needed to create a winning piece of theatre. An exceptional cast? Check. An accomplished writer with a proven history? Check. A story that could be brought to life with plenty of opportunity for madcap hilarity? Check. So why does it fail so spectacularly? To me, the problem lies solely in the writing. While the press night was initially delayed apparently owing to the show being rewritten, it did feel like this hit the West End stage before it was ready and could have spent some more time being developed until it was up to scratch. Sadly, in its current form it felt like a waste of so many talented people on that stage.
That being said, theatre is subjective and there were people in the audience laughing their heads off throughout so don’t take my word for it, and please go and make your mind up. It’s worth it if only to see such stunning talent in surprising roles. The Crown Jewels might not have successfully stolen my heart but it isn’t the worst crime to hit a West End stage in recent years.
The Crown Jewels plays at the Garrick Theatre until 16th September.
It then heads to Salford, Canterbury and Cardiff.
Full dates and tickets from www.crownjewelsplay.com
Photos by Hugo Glendinning