Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Theatre review: The Moment of Truth

A bit of a rarity in the temporary Southwark Playhouse's Large auditorium, as the playwrighting career of Peter Ustinov is dusted off with Rob Laycock's revival of his 1951 play The Moment of Truth. Inspired in part by the collaborators during the Nazi occupation of France, it takes place in an unnamed country whose days of military glory are far behind it, and is now being attacked by a powerful enemy and betrayed by its allies. In the face of his ministers' denial, a brutally pragmatic Prime Minister (Miles Richardson) accepts the inevitable and begins plotting how to spin this to everyone's advantage. When The Victor (Damian Quinn) finally arrives at his office demanding surrender, the Prime Minister instead offers him a deal: He and his Foreign Minister (Mark Carey) will collaborate, keeping some vestiges of power for themselves, while making the Victor's ruling of a hostile population easier. Their little coalition will hide behind a puppet dictator.

This particular task will go to the Marshal (Rodney Bewes,) the architect of their military victories 20 years ago, and still a much-loved public figure. Now he's far gone in senility, and his daily joys or rages about memories and fantasies can be captured by a photographer (Daniel Souter) and spun by the press into whatever the required political narrative is.

Popular when it premiered, The Moment of Truth has not since been professionally revived until now, and although it has elements to recommend it, it's also easy to see why it's a tricky proposition. Laycock's production has the feel of a slightly surreal comedy, but the text doesn't really back this up. There's some energetic and fun performances from the cast, which I assume they developed in a fairly short rehearsal period (as, a week into its run, quite a few of them were still tripping up on some of their lines.) But Ustinov's plot is thin, and constantly being put to one side in favour of philosophising; one character criticises the Prime Minister for constantly speaking in abstractions, an accusation neither he nor the play takes to heart unfortunately.

The second act takes us four years on to the collapse of this puppet government, as a former General (Callum Coates) turns guerrilla and, with the help of new international allies, reclaims the nation. There's a rather fascinating argument at the heart of the play as the cynical Prime Minister, who is now inevitably labelled a traitor, had seen this coming all along but acted in a way he believed would save the most lives. But again, this is left rather to the side as we end on a protracted King Lear reference with the Marshal outliving the younger characters, but mired in madness, mistaking storms for gunshots. Bewes gives it all he's got but the metaphor seems flawed to me and another example of Ustinov trying to explore too many issues without really digging into one.

All the characters are nameless except for the Marshal's daughter who has 13 of them, including Beatrice and, inevitably, Cordelia. Bonnie Wright always struck me as one of the most wooden of the young actors discovered by the Harry Potter films, and though she's improved I still found her far from a relaxed, natural performer. She's competent but her Beatrice lacks depth, beyond her concern for her manipulated father I would have liked to see a bit more of a selfish angle on how being the daughter of the "dictator" will reflect on her when the puppet regime falls.

Following the early cancellation of Tanzi Libre, this ended up being my first experience of Southwark Playhouse's new main house, and although not as atmospheric as the old railway tunnels I quickly warmed to the venue - apparently its seating capacity is larger than at London Bridge but it actually has a real intimacy to it, at least as configured here by Alex Marker. Used to making a little go a long way at the Finborough, the designer has here created a versatile thrust set that goes from government office to blasted battlements. I look forward to what else this space will have to offer over the coming years of Southwark Playhouse'e exile; but can't quite get behind this first full offering.

The Moment of Truth by Peter Ustinov is booking until the 20th of July at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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