The Other Boleyn Girl


Is there anything more to say about the court intrigues of the reign of Henry VIII? After the musical ‘Six’, the novels of Hilary Mantel and their several adaptations, and a dramatic tradition now stretching back to ‘A Man for All Seasons’ and ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ surely we have reached the end of the road? This solid, careful drama by Mike Poulton, a veteran in this field, suggests that there is quite a lot of mileage still to go over and above the recent film version of the novel from which this play also derives.

The focus here, as with ‘Six’, is very much on the victims of Henry, who himself only makes a few, fleeting appearances. The play is built around the triangle of the two Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne, and their younger brother, George. We meet them first as an inseparable triangle of siblings before they are gradually pulled apart as part of a larger political game played by their mother and uncle. This is where the play really does break new ground in showing how the younger generation are very much at the mercy of the purely cynical power games of their older relatives, here played with chilling intensity by Alex Kingston and Andrew Woodall. So pliant Mary is forced to become the king’s mistress; George is also compelled to marry a woman they all detest and in defiance of his own sexuality; and even Anne, despite her own feisty independence, finds that queenship is a new kind of prison.

Set, costumes, and music all help cement the sense of enclosure and corridor whispers. A hexagonal walkway dominates the forestage, which provides a consistent dynamic flow of movement and within it a focal point for more intimate scenes. Over the backstage looms a skeletal galleried framework where gossiping courtiers and flit and lurk in the shadows. A particularly effective touch are the pillars in the shape of lances that descend at intervals from the flies to suggest columns or bedposts or prison bars. Costumes are broadly in period style, mostly in sober-suited black that sets off the few striking flashes and splashes of colour; and the authentic folk songs sung by Nitai Levi, as Mark Smeaton, underscore the mood effectively at key points in the action.

All the key parts are well taken here. Lucy Phelps offers a slow-burn characterisation of the much-put-upon Mary Boleyn, whose successful pursuit of a secluded life away from court makes her the only real survivor. Her latent rivalry with her sister is brought out effectively in the second half. Playing Anne herself, Freya Mavor captures her competitive energy and carefully curated allure very plausibly, while also calibrating her decline and fracture with precision. James Corrigan completes the sibling triangle in a role that is more lightly sketched in the drama than might be, especially when it comes to sexuality. But he does convey very well the sense of being trapped by the burden of the expectations of others. Among the supporting cast, Oscar Batterham is outstanding as Mary’s second husband, Stafford, with a tonal variety and truthfulness to his acting that clamours for recognition in more major roles.

There are some problems. The first half is too long and too heavy on clunky exposition. The play lacks the thriller qualities of Mantel’s treatment of the same period, which is really a study in two contrasted forms of political ruthlessness, pitting Cromwell and Anne against each other. There is also little sense of the larger issues – state sovereignty and the Reformation – that are implicated in this particular narrative. This is a family drama, much more slow moving, and until the sharply focused second half the flow of events and action is not fully translated into depth of characterisation.

That said, the acting and production values are consistently powerful and effective, leaving the audience far more satisfied than not. The solid virtues of this endeavour should ensure a deservedly successful run.

Mike Poulton after a novel by Philippa Gregory

Director: Lucy Bailey

Photo Credit: Stephen Cummiskey

Cast includes: James Atherton, Oscar Batterham, James Corrigan, Kemi-Jo Jacobs, Alex Kingston, Nitai Levi, Freya Mavor, Lily Nichol, Lucy Phelps, Andrew Woodall

Until 11 May 2024

3 hrs with interval