Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Theatre review: The Captain of Köpenick

I'm not sure what's going on at the National lately - the better the quality of work at the now-defunct Cottesloe, the more questionable the choices in the two bigger houses seem to get. After last year's unmemorable Travelling Light in the Lyttelton, Antony Sher moves to the Olivier for Carl Zuckmayer's farcical satire on bureaucracy and the blind following of orders, The Captain of Köpenick.

Wilhelm Voigt (Sher) is a lifelong small-time crook. Released from prison for the umpteenth time, he finds life on the outside even more of a challenge as he can't do anything without presenting his official papers - documents he's never actually had. As Voigt's very existence is questioned by the authorities, the Mayor of Köpenick (Anthony O'Donnell) is having a new military uniform made - a plot that will (eventually) cross paths with Voigt's.

Anthony Ward's set is all angles and there's plenty of mustaches and big hairdos - visually the production strongly recalls the recent The Magistrate, which I didn't find quite as funny as I'd hoped but which certainly had a better hit rate than this.


Adrian Noble's production employs a heavily farcical style full of slapstick and pratfalls, which is hardly going to discourage an actor like Sher who isn't afraid of giving a "big" performance at the best of times. At one point Steven Edis' otherwise suitably bombastic score seems about to veer into the theme tune from Steptoe and Son, which I couldn't help but see as a bit of a dig at Sher's weirdly gurgling performance. As Ian said, he's clearly not someone afraid to be the centre of attention. I wouldn't have put it past Sher to drop everything and perform "The Shoop Shoop Song" if it'd get a laugh. He doesn't though.


At least the strong cast offer some moments that stand out for the right reasons, like Olivia Poulet as the Mayor's wife shamelessly flirting with the tailor's apprentice (Paul Chequer) while the always impressive Adrian Schiller manages to bring some actual depth into the cartoonish figures as the socialist tailor. But overall I found a real whiff of desperation to the production's attempts at comedy (there's even a Pythonesque cartoon projected at the end that doesn't really fit into the show's previous style) which isn't rewarded with the laughs it wants, and which buries any chance of the political satire coming through.

The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer in a version by Ron Hutchinson is booking in repertory until the 4th of April at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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