An entertaining display, clearly destined for Netflix: Patriots, at Almeida Theatre, reviewed

23 July 2022

9:00 AM

23 July 2022

9:00 AM


Almeida Theatre, until 20 August

Jack Absolute Flies Again

Olivier Theatre, in rep until 3 September

Patriots, by Peter Morgan, is a drama documentary about recent Russian history. And though it’s a topical show it’s not entirely up to date. The central character, Boris Berezovsky (1946-2013), was a schoolboy maths wizard who went into academia and published 16 books before entering politics. His Jewish background excluded him from the leadership of Russia so he became king-maker to Boris Yeltsin. An early contact, the deputy mayor of St Petersburg, asked for Berezovsky’s help. The rising youngster seemed to be harmless, malleable, and rather needy so Berezovsky installed him as a tame prime minister. Thus Vladimir Putin’s career began.

Berezovsky owned a TV station that criticised the handling of the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000. And Putin was incensed. Warfare began and Berezovsky realised he’d blundered by creating a dictator whom he couldn’t restrain. Even a billionaire has no defences against a man who controls the police, the courts and the prisons. Berezovsky was driven into exile in England where he was found dead in a mansion near Ascot. All this is set out in dozens of short, sharp scenes which use the narrative structure of TV rather than the stage.

Director Rupert Goold opens his box of tricks and lays on an entertaining display of visuals that skilfully conceal the fact that the show consists of greedy thugs talking about business deals and plots to commit theft and murder. It’s like watching a game of Monopoly that lasts far too long. Not much new information emerges. Did you know that Berezovsky wrote nothing on paper and concluded billion-dollar deals on the strength of a handshake? Well, now you do. Women and children barely feature and this omission badly damages the characters’ emotional breadth.

Although Berezovsky is drawn as a satisfyingly rounded human being, the portraits of Putin and Roman Abramovich are thin and weightless. Will Keen, in a brilliantly accurate wig, puts his whispering voice and his pinched narrow face to good use as Putin. A cold, sly, wolfish, lurking presence. But entirely static. A Bond baddie and no more. What is this man thinking? What drives him? Is he mad or just self-obsessed? We never learn.

Luke Thallon is decent enough as the creepy Abramovich but the role also lacks colour. The real Abramovich is said to be shy but excellent company when he relaxes. No hint of that here. Paul Kynman portrays Yeltsin as a slurring washed-up comic but his inner life is a mystery too. As Berezovsky, Tom Hollander delivers his habitual charm, magnetism and humour. He’s such a sweetie, such an adorable little koala bear, that you want to give him a cuddle. It’s hard to believe that this impish, wise-cracking rascal was one of the world’s great power-brokers during the 1990s. This is a decent show but it feels like an audition piece intended for the head of commissioning at Netflix. Still, it’s nice of the Almeida to let us see it too.

Jack Absolute Flies Again is a belting new comedy by Richard Bean and Oliver Chris. The writers have uprooted Sheridan’s 1775 comedy The Rivals and plonked it into wartime Britain. We’re in a rural mansion, Malaprop Hall, requisitioned by the RAF as a regional headquarters. The chatelaine, Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin), is still in residence and she starts the show by warming up the crowd with a string of gags about Imelda Staunton and Helen Mirren who, she claims, turned the role down. She adds that her understudy, Kristin Scott Thomas, plays the matinees and performs the part seriously, ‘and in French’. It’s a brilliant start to a night of comedy gold.

The writers take gentle pops at feminism, class war and migrants who speak in funny accents. And they don’t give a stuff about offending the boo-hoo crowd. There’s a nerdy Sikh named Tony and a permanently grinning Aussie called Bob ‘Wingnut’ Acres. The posh characters are waited on by a Cockney wench (fabulous work from Kerry Howard), who complains that her role is merely a device. ‘All the bleeding maid gets to do is oil the plot by delivering love letters to the wrong people.’

First place in this terrific cast goes to Peter Forbes as Sir Anthony, an insanely aggressive commanding officer. ‘Be quiet – I’m shouting!’ The script includes passages of comedy that feel like instant classics. And what a joy to see the absurdly large Olivier Theatre being handled with such aplomb by director Emily Burns. This vast space isn’t really suited to drama at all. A boxing match or a circus with performing elephants would work better here, and yet this ravishing and hilarious show fits the sprawling emptiness perfectly. The music, the sets, the acting, the costumes, everything is stunning. Sadly, it failed to please the lady from the Guardian. ‘Mostly toothless,’ she said.

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