Reviewed: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

“very much a play of two halves, the second being considerably better than the first”

★ ★ First half

★ ★ ★ Second Half

If a theatre critic wanted to be sardonic, they might claim that the best part of a play was the end. However, the fact is that although I would honestly say this about Ooook! Production’s  The Napoleon of Notting Hill, I would say it for a very different reason: this was very much a play of two halves, the second being considerably better than the first.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s satire upon nationalism and the failures of ‘modern’ political attitudes in general. Based in an alternate world slightly in the future of, but in all other respects similar to, his own, Napoleon tells a story of a country which has given up on democracy, instead implementing a system in which monarchs are crowned as the result of an arbitrary lottery and granted absolute power. One particularly whimsical monarch decides, as part of a grand joke, to grant each borough of London autonomy as individual cities. Petty, yet extreme, nationalism causes conflict to flare up between them as what once started out as a joke becomes a matter of life, death, and glory for the leaders of the various districts.

The play opens with a monologue drawn directly from Chesterton’s introduction to the book, in which figures all in black walk around the stage behind the Storyteller (Chaz Pitman), performing various actions complementing the content  of the Storyteller’s speech. The set itself was quite sparse, even beyond this first scene, which quickly became confusing as it was hard to keep track of location and context as well as looking slightly dull. A more elaborate set was gradually introduced as the play went on – however I feel that it would have been more effective to introduce these details sooner. The Storyteller’s monologue was obscured at times by the background noise of the people on stage with him. This problem extended throughout the performance, with off-stage sound effects often being on the verge of drowning out the actors on stage.  The monologue itself was slightly hesitant, and the dialogue in general did not come across as particularly organic – in fact, I got the impression that the actors were ‘forcing’ their characters. However, this may have been in response to the lack of audience (aside from myself, there could not have been more than fifteen other people watching), and did not last throughout the entire play.

The first half was pulled up near the end by the introduction of the Provost of Notting Hill (Frederico Mollet), who was played excellently for the most part. Mollet spoke with all the gravitas and pathos you would expect from his character with just enough of a sense of earnest ridiculousness to remind you that his character was, fundamentally, the central joke upon which the entire narrative hung. The only problem with this was that occasionally he would speak so quietly as to be difficult to hear. Furthermore, his diction lacked the variation required to make his speech seem natural – a problem which plagued many members of the cast and made their characters seem somewhat one dimensional. On the other hand, as the second half began, his character really came into its own. I got the feeling that the other actors also slipped more comfortably into their roles, as they began to act more naturally and thus more convincingly, which enabled the play to build to some authentically funny moments, and a very engaging and entertaining climax. The performance ended with a dialogue between Notting Hill and the King (Kirsten Lees) which displayed a range of sentiments and emotions not displayed earlier. This particularly applied to Lees’ performance, which displayed nuance not present before this.

On the whole I would say that I enjoyed Napoleon, although I was not so sure that I was going to do so initially. Due to the inconsistencies mentioned above, I don’t feel that this performance was quite up to the standard of some of Ooook’s previous productions (such as Night Watch), but I left the theatre with a smile on my face nevertheless. All in all, I would probably recommend going, but maybe showing up half an hour late.