'The Crown Jewels' review – Al Murray steals the show as a royally great Charles II

Read our review of The Crown Jewels, starring Al Murray, Mel Giedroyc, and Carrie Hope Fletcher, now in performances at the Garrick Theatre to 16 September.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Can this really be a true story? In The Crown Jewels, Simon Nye makes his West End play debut by dramatising an astonishing 17th-century heist, in which a mad Irish rebel made a pretty decent attempt at stealing those treasures from the Tower of London just before Charles II’s 10-year Jubilee celebration. It’s a royally great subject, particularly following Charles III’s Coronation.

As for the actual telling of this tale, the sparkling gem of a performance comes from comedian Al Murray, who makes an impressive acting debut as the foppish, womanising, tyrannical king. He has majestic command of the stage, flipping instantly between silly (his confusion over a newly discovered fruit, his outlandish royal pronunciation) and dangerous: Anyone who offends him will lose their head.

Murray forms a brilliant double act with Adonis Siddique as his terrified footman. “So funny!” chirps Charles every time he cracks a joke, usually about his hatred of the Dutch or Oliver Cromwell – and Siddique’s aide immediately breaks into nervous laughter. I’d happily watch a whole show just of the two of them.

But then Murray, drawing on his vast stand-up experience as the Pub Landlord, also makes fantastic use of the live audience. He flirts, he teases (one man, he deduces, must be destitute because he can’t afford a wig), and he commands another to stand with a brisk “Up, boy!” He also ad-libs a hilarious exchange with a couple sitting in a box – definitely the comic highlight.

Frustratingly, the other scripted parts of the show are plodding in comparison. The scenes with the dour plotters just don’t land, partly because their motivation is muddled. Shouty leader Colonel Blood wants justice for his native Ireland, but there’s a lot of history to get across there, while his placid son and drunken friend just seem to go along with his vague, and extremely perilous, plan.

There’s a bit of a Restoration comedy framing to Sean Foley’s production, but it feels closer to panto or sitcom (like Nye’s hit Men Behaving Badly). However the pacing is far too sluggish, and the overreliance on knob gags gets tiresome. It’s also hard to figure out the tone: It’s generally quite cartoonish, but with sudden dashes of sex and violence.

A starry cast papers over some of those cracks. Mel Giedroyc gamely spoofs her Bake Off experience: her Mrs. Edwards, wife of the man guarding the Crown Jewels, has the enterprising idea to flog edible souvenirs, like a sourdough sceptre, to visitors. But she’s most fun when let loose on the audience, playing a randy duchess with a sublimely preposterous French accent.

Aidan McArdle, Joe Thomas and Nye’s Men Behaving Badly mate Neil Morrissey are rather wasted as Blood and co., but Tanvi Virmani gets good mileage out of their accomplice, a star actress of her day with an over-the-top declamatory style. Carrie Hope Fletcher, like Giedroyc, winks at her past by playing a Cinderella-esque unmarried girl who belts out an “I want” song, but her other numbers – though skilfully delivered – just slow the action.

Michael Taylor supplies vibrant costumes (Charles’s gold shoes are delightful), and a breathless chase scene played out on a big map with puppets offers some zany theatricality. More of that inventiveness is needed to turn this fitfully funny historical curio into a crowning achievement.

The Crown Jewels is at the Garrick Theatre through 16 September. Book The Crown Jewels tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Crown Jewels. (Photo by Hugo Glendinning)

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