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Review: Mark Gatiss and Douglas Henshall calmly power through 55 Days

55_days_finalmarkbThe Hampstead Theatre has rolled out a bumper cast for its latest production, a Howard Brenton play about the days between King Charles I's imprisonment, his trial and then execution.

I'm not sure whether the 30 or so actors and extras  were really warranted - I'm wondering who might have been roped in for walk on parts - although it did create quite a nice effect as they streamed across the stage from opposite sides picking up pieces of furniture and props in passing. Incidentally, the stage has been placed in the middle of the theatre with seating on two long sides which, vaguely, reminded me of the Houses of Parliament although the stage furniture was more 1950's office.

I digress, the stars of the show are most certainly Mark Gatiss and Douglas Henshall who play Charles and the engineer of his downfall Oliver Cromwell.

Gatiss's Charles is dressed as you see the King in portraits complete with the trademark pointy moustache and beard and long hair but his is the only period dress. Cromwell and the rest of the cast all wear modern attire, sometimes military garb sometimes suits to emphasise the overthrow of an old order with something more modern.

Henshall's Cromwell is calm and thoughtful without being cold, his composure and strong moral stance gives him an air of approachable authority that makes his success as a leader understandable.

Gatiss' Charles is equally calm but he carries himself with a regal and affected air. He exudes the pomposity of someone who believes his position is divinely ordained but this is no comedy king, he is clever and sharp and even those most hardened republicans find it difficult not to alter their behaviour and treat him as a King.

Charles' confidence in his own position continually rattles Cromwell and his follows beliefs - they often turn to the bible picking quotes at random and looking for justification in the words. The gravity of their plans in leading them into unknown territory constitutionally and politically are subtly reinforced throughout.

This is a history and politics lesson wrapped up in a tense and intelligent drama and for someone who abandoned history studies at the death of Elizabeth I I found it fascinating and gripping.

If I was going to have a minor grumble it would be the length of time it takes to set the scene. It seems to take an awfully long time for either Charles or Cromwell to make first appearance but then perhaps that's because I'm a big fan of Gatiss and Henshall.

55 Days serves a nice companion piece to This House at the National Theatre as both portray a battle for governance. In the former the seeds are planted for the modern Government while the latter shows just how low that process can stoop. In my eyes at least.

 You can see 55 Days until November 24 at the Hampstead Theatre and you can read Poly's thoughts on her blog.