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Irons shines as big Mac

PUBLISHED: 16:53 02 April 2008 | UPDATED: 17:18 16 August 2010

CONCRETE outside is matched with concrete onstage at the Lyttleton Theatre, where bare walls are interspersed with shelving containing

CONCRETE outside is matched with concrete onstage at the Lyttleton Theatre, where bare walls are interspersed with shelving containing box files and tall wooden doors giving an impression of an Edwardian Official building.

Enter Jeremy Irons as Harold Macmillan in later years, with a stick and whisky glass in hand. He immediately strikes up a rapport with the audience and the warmth of his character floods the cold stage with light. This is a superb tribute to a man who found that events were too powerful for him ever to get control of his own life.

His mother was an overbearing American woman who interfered in every aspect of her son's life, removing him from Eton, engineering a commission in the Guards for WWI, and finally marrying him off to a well connected lady after he was badly wounded in the groin.

He took to politics and she took a lover "to make me feel alive" and while his government wilfully ignored the Nazi menace, Churchill (a rather skittish representation from Ian McNeice) and Mac plotted Chamberlaine's downfall.

A clever use of ballroom dancers, performing an elegant tango before the lights go out for the start of hostilities in 1914 makes an unconscious parallel with the grand ball before Waterloo, but the repetitive use of these dancers to set the scene for each decade cheapens the device.

As the play progresses, the young soldier Macmillan (Pip Carter) stays with us in the background, becoming a mouthpiece for the author, berating Mac. For his shortcomings and reminding us that the left-wing Howard Brenton has to distance himself from these privileged people, but his use of the Suez crisis to point up the futility of meddling in the Middle East is a point well taken.

When the young soldier chides the ageing politician that "you were always second best", presumably comparing him to his friend and mentor Winston Churchill, we begin to wonder why Mr. B has bothered to pen this docu/drama at all.

Loud explosions and a plane crash do not make much excitement, and most of us are well versed in the abysmal failures of 20th century politicians, so I can't say I learned much, although the strong-arm tactics of the Americans in the post-war period is well highlighted. Eisenhower (Clive Francis) is amiable enough with the Brits until he finds out he is being double-crossed over Suez and immediately orders the Fed to sell stirling and precipitate a national financial crisis in Britain.

This, coupled with the Profumo sex scandal, the withdrawal from Africa, and a bad winter at home finally persuade an ageing 'Supermac' that he has had enough of the top job and he retires to write his memoirs.

He was proud of his contribution in defeating the Nazis and giving young people here "the right to be angry about being angry' so the National Theatre are right to present our history for inspection and debate, and a full house says there is an appetite for this kind of show.

* 'Never so Good' at the National Theatre Lyttleton, South Bank SE1 until May 24. Box Office: 0207 4523000.

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