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The Other Boleyn Girl (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Other Boleyn Girl

Adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novel by Mike Poulton

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Chichester Festival Theatre

Star rating: 4

Given the compelling originality of Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel, Mike Poulton’s track record as a playwright and Lucy Bailey’s directorial talent, I had high expectation of this show. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s sumptuous.

The Howard/Boleyn faction is a cess pit of ruthless, self-interested schemers. So they’re delighted that they’ve managed to manoeuvre the somewhat reluctant Mary Boleyn into King Henry’s bed. When that palls, Anne manages to hook him, famously denying him sex until her position is secure. Except that, as we all know, it’s not. Failure to produce the longed-for male heir eventually leads to the most famous execution in history. The whole point of this play, and the novel it’s based on, is to heighten awareness of Mary’s having been there first and getting, against the odds, a much happier ending than her sister.

Chris Davey’s dark lighting against Joanna Parker’s set with with its shadowy upper tier on the back wall supports the atmosphere of skulduggery and fear and Parker’s in-period costumes are beautiful. Video projection (Dick Straker) doesn’t add much, however, and is – if anything – a distraction. Why do we suddenly see a huge hound?

Orland Gough’s music, performed by Chris Green on lute and Sarah Harrison on violin is very appealing, It is rooted in the 16th century but includes a lot of quirky modern spin. It’s especially effective when it’s accompanying court dancing including a lovely moment when Harrison plays a take on Sellinger’s Round and the cast dance around her. There’s also some commendably accurate choral singing  which underpins the sense of church music in the 1530s.

The piece, in all its power, is performed by a generally strong cast of eighteen with especially noteworthy work from Lucy Phelps as Mary, troubled, determined, put-upon and wanting nothing more than to be allowed to retire to Kent with her children. Kemi-Jo Jacobs finds statuesque dignity in Queen Katherine and sordid realism in the midwife who attends Anne’s abortive pregnancies,

Andrew Woodall’s irascible, controlling Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk,  commands the stage and is often funny because by 2024 standards his attitude is laughably outrageous. Alex Kingston does something similar as his sister, mother to Mary, Anne and George and apparently without any maternal feelings at all. For her it’s entirely about power and control.

One of the most interesting things about this take on events in the 1520s and 30s is that we are firmly with Anne and Mary. It’s a feminist angle. The period’s famous men – Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, for example – are very minor,

The Other Boleyn Girl is the opening show in the first season programmed by CFT’s new Artistic Director, Justin Audibert. It augurs well.

Photograph by Stepen Cummiskey

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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