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King Cromwell

It is 1657 and Oliver Cromwell faces a difficult dilemma. After years of Civil War should he accept the role of monarch mooted by Parliament and anchor a country deeply divided, or remain Lord Protector and true to his declared principles? Such is the central theme of Oliver Ford Davies' play which explores some of the key issues of Cromwell's last months compressing them with dramatic licence into the events of a single day.

Bereft of sleep, confined to a bedchamber in Whitehall and plagued with doubts about his rightful role in the realm, Cromwell ( Ford Davies) is a man cut adrift. Ill and suddenly deprived of confidence in the sanctification of his actions, he's faced with the prospect of an unsuitable heir in reclusive son Richard (Damien Matthews), the poet Andrew Marvell (Sean Baker) lobbying for a position as MP and fervent supporters trying to persuade him to accept the crown.

If this all sounds like a condensed history lesson, think again. Ford Davies has distilled his research into a thoroughly engrossing, often lively play that takes liberties only with the detail, not with the facts themselves. Though serious and careworn, this is no one-dimensional Cromwell on offer in Sam Walters' thoughtful production. We see him exasperated with his pregnant daughter Bettie (Claudia Elmhirst) whose advocacy of the delights of the new musical form 'op-er-a' leaves him unmoved, enthusiasm reserved only for the prospect of a new piece that lampoons 'the perfidious Spanish'. Gently comic family detail mingles smoothly with affairs of state as, hungering vainly for meat, he's scornful of the diet of fish and vegetables prescribed for him by his wife.

The conflict at the heart of this drama spins to a conclusion as a stricken Cromwell makes a supplication to God in front of friends and family, finally finding the clarity to reject the role of monarch. It's a slightly artificial moment that belies the quality of the preceding drama but apart from this and the over-pitched protestations of Paul Goodwin's Lambert, King Cromwell offers an absorbing and intriguing glimpse into the mind of a remarkable man.

(Amanda Hodges)

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