The Lion in Winter

Written on January 21st, 2017

The Long and The Short of It

By guest reviewer Megan Moorhouse

The Lion in Winter, like so many classic plays, is probably still more well-known as a movie.  The 1968 film version famously earned the inimitable Katherine Hepburn an Academy Award for Best Actress, starred Peter O’Toole, and featured Sir Anthony Hopkins in an early role as Richard the Lionhearted.  In my household, however, The Lion in Winter has long been the punchline to a joke. My husband and I saw a community theatre production of this show many years ago that lasted nearly three-and-a-half hours, a sad fact that led to: a) the aforementioned punchline anytime something is too long, and b) Ian’s utter refusal to see any more community theatre shows with me. So I’m delighted to say that current production at London’s Grand Theatre positively zips by, at a brisk two hours, including intermission.

James Goldman’s witty script follows the infighting and gamesmanship of the British Royal family on one Christmas Eve in 1183.  When Eleanor of Aquitaine (Brenda Robins) is released from her solitary confinement to spend Christmas with her husband King Henry II (Stuart Hughes), the debate between them — namely, which of their sons deserves to ascend to the throne — rages throughout the evening.  The King’s mistress (Sarah Afful) is also his son’s fiancée, the visiting French King (Paulo Santalucia) has machinations (and lovers) of his own, and almost everyone is carrying a knife.  And you thought your family Christmas was difficult to live through!  As the warring King and Queen, Stuart and Hughes use every cruel word to hilarious effect. These two actors share incredible comic timing, and their verbal jousting is hilarious in its cleverness.Lion in Winter

In her director’s notes, Krista Jackson describes The Lion in Winter as “a game of chess…every move you make that doesn’t strengthen your position weakens it.” And each member of this cast, from the manipulative middle child (Ben Sanders, who appeared at the Grand Theatre as a teen in the annual High School Project), to the youngest prince (Andre Morin) bring their own brand of conniving energy to the match. The direction of the actors’ performances is assured, and the pacing makes this comic play sparkle.  I teach high school drama, and both a current and former student commented that these characters were juicy and seemed fun to play, which is a tribute to both the writing and the performances under Jackson’s capable hand.

While I like some aspects of the costuming (King Henry’s cape in act two, the jewel tones of Eleanor’s dress), some of the costume pieces are too modern: Queen Eleanor wears Blundstone boots, and Richard the Lionhearted dons camouflage-printed cargo pants. Prince John, in a pair of burgundy jeans, an orange graphic hoodie with thumb holes in the sleeves, and black Converse runners, is styled as some sort of 90s Skater Boy.  The tall, angular set pieces (both set and costumes were designed by Sue LePage) are far too large for the stage, relegating all the action to about five feet downstage. While I understand the need for large scale to depict the castle, the fact that there are huge set pieces upstage that serve no purpose means that every scene looks cramped, and too similar. The stage hands, dressed as Gregorian monks, coming out to change set pieces at intermission are a nice addition.

I have often said that the only thing better than a good play is a good short play, and The Grand Theatre’s production of The Lion in Winter certainly fits the bill. I guess I’ll have to find something else to make fun of when things run too long…Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps?

The Lion in Winter continues at the Grand Theatre, London until January 28.  Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit

Photo: Brenda Robins and Stuart Hughes in The Grand Theatre’s production of The Lion in Winter. Photo by Claus Andersen.

The Lion in Winter
By James Goldman
Directed by Krista Jackson
Performed by Sarah Afful, Stuart Hughes, Andre Morin, Brenda Robins, Ben Sanders, Paolo Santalucia, Rylan Wilkie.
Grand Theatre, London
January 13 to 28, 2017
Reviewed by Megan Moorhouse
(Thank you to Ms. Moorhouse for supplying this review  She is a drama teacher at H. B. Beal Secondary School in London, where she directs their musical theatre productions.)


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