REVIEW: The Other Boleyn Girl, Chichester Festival Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews Mike Poulton’s The Other Boleyn Girl based on the novel by Philippa Gregory now playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

The Other Boleyn Girl
Lucy Phelps as Mary Boleyn. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

The Other Boleyn Girl
Chichester Festival Theatre
5 Stars
Book Tickets


Theatre will never tire of the Tudors, nor should it.  From every new angle they offer a dramatic gift which never stops giving.  Here’s 1534,  and Mary Boleyn in a very understandable temper, telling it like it is.  “I am an adulteress and a whore” she says .”My sister is an adulteress, a whore, a bigamist and Queen of England!’

Mary  (a spirited Lucy Phelps, crackling with defiant life) has had enough of being ordered about by a lordly patriarchal society, including her ambitious, nervous, probably gay brother George.  She’s done her turn as royal mistress,  lost her husband to the sweating-sickness, and now wants to be left alone down at Hever Castle with the man she properly loves,  the low-born farmer Stafford. Small chance.  Above them all, throughout this properly thrilling play there hang jousting lances pointing downward:   sometimes descending to become barriers or the posts of a great bed.  None of the characters have ever been safe or fully in control of their lives, not from the very start. Except, of course, Henry VIII.

The Other Boleyn Girl
James Corrigan (George), Lucy Phelps (Mary), and Freya Mavor (Anne). Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

This is a very classy production indeed, which must surely live beyond its Chichester summer.  Mike Poulton wrote the play based on Philippa Gregory’s carefully researched novel:  he knows his Tudor world, having brilliantly brought the first two of Hilary Mantel’s  Cromwell trilogy to the stage (his absence from the third being the reason it was sadly flatter).    And Lucy Bailey directs with characteristic speed and brio, having wisely enrolled Ayse Tashkiran to create the movement. That’s a key to its atmosphere and solemnity,   renaissance dance from time to time illustrating the fragile marital, sexual and power politics of that edgy court.   Orlando Gough’s music, under Chris Green of GreenMatthews,  is perfectly judged too:   evocative of the period but without pastiche (the religious chants wisely avoid the easy cliché of plainsong).   The whole thing is just very, very good: it holds together and holds the heart.

The Other Boleyn Girl
Kerri Bo Jacobs as Queen Katherine of Aragon. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

We encounter the Boleyn siblings – Mary, Anne, and George – at first ten years earlier, huddled together in nightgowns, laughing. They are all under the sway of Alex Kingston’s ferociously ambitious and not at-all maternal Lady Elizabeth and their noble  Howard “Uncle Norfolk”.  Mary has been married off to a discontented but complaisant husband,  who puts up with her having become the King’s acknowledged mistress “before the wedding flowers faded” , and mother to his illegitimate son and daughter (the latter ancestress of the late Queen Mother, by the way).  But as the elders say “Bastards are worse than girls!”.

The Other Boleyn Girl
Lily Nichol (Jame Boleyn) and James Corrigan (George Boleyn). Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Anne has a passion for  Harry Percy, and the three hold a ceremony of wedding vows – “Once betrothed and bedded, what can they do?” she says – Freya Mavor playing it rather colder and more selfish than her sister.   The elders are furious – “beds are business!” and love irrelevant.  Queen Katharine, a stately Spanish galleon stepping through the dances,  is kind to Mary; having failed to produce the essential male heir she will shortly be divorced.

Chichester Festival Theatre
Andrew Woodall (Norfolk)and Alex Kingston (Lady Elizabeth). Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

The King’s eyes are on Anne now: watch James Atherton, predatory, circling round the dance. She holds off his physical approaches until wedlock, as the Harry Percy marriage and bedding are hastily denied.  Cromwell and Cardinal know which way their bread is buttered and how to keep their heads safe. George, the loving brother,  pulls rank because he is the man,  but lives in dread because the rumours of him and his very close friend Francis are increasing as his sister’s star fades.  Lily Nichol, as the thwarted and bitchy wife forced on him, is no help.   Anne’s mother and uncle moan of Anne’s desperate reproductive attempts “Until she gets him a son and heir we tread on glass!|”   It is all,  as Mary so rightly observed in that outburst above, disgraceful.

But fantastic drama:  by focusing on Mary and Anne,  on the helplessness of women in that world and the guile they are forced to use, a real sympathetic urgency throbs through the story.  There are terrible rows,  fears, pregnancies, births,  and when poor Anne has a malformed “Satanic” foetus which assists her progress towards disgrace and death, there is treachery by a terrible old midwife (Kemi-Bo Jacobs nicely doubled with Queen Katharine).   But there is loyalty and determination in the story and in the manipulated women, especially Mary, a humane nobility. Character and endurance ring down the centuries. Altogether terrific.

Runs through to 11 May

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