'Sherlock' writer, actor and League of Gentlemen comic Mark Gatiss is one of the most talented men in showbiz. Which is one reason why there were more stars watching him make his poodle-wigged debut as King Charles I than there were onstage in Howard Davies's gripping, low-key production of Howard Brenton's new history play.
It's unusual to see the English Civil War staged by anyone other than military nerds in some soggy Midlands field. It's a fascinating founding period for modern Britain. But it was a long, bloody battleground of ideas and religious loyalties – with a stuttering Stuart rather than a flamboyant Tudor redhead in the leading role.
The play is set in the 55 days prior to Charles's execution. With his long hair, long face, long legs and languid posh Scots diction, Gatiss plays the imprisoned king as a lanky, vicious fop with perfect comic timing. Chrales is like a raven, perched on the battlements above the nation that Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army generals are struggling to create, cawing doom and crapping on their plans wherever possible.
Brenton, theatre's answer to Hilary Mantel, seems to be on a mission to carry on where Shakespeare left off – with more politics and less poetry. '55 Days' is a punchy sequel to Brenton's Globe hit 'Anne Boleyn' and it proves, yet again, his genius for turning the history of ideas into powerful drama. He is too much on the rebels' side, though: Douglas Henshall's excellent Oliver Cromwell has charisma and a conscience, as well as history on his side – visibly so, as the director dresses everyone except the king as modern soldiers or politicos.
What you don't get from Gatiss – or Brenton's script – is real tragic insight into this intransigent hypocrite, who wasted his own country and the lives of his subjects for seven long years but then died on the block with eloquence and courage.