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Review: Decline and Fall at the Red Lion Theatre

Published 13 December 2010

First built in 1415, Islington’s Old Red Lion Pub is one of the oldest in London. Offering a cosy yet vibrant pub downstairs, the venue also houses an intimate 60-seat theatre upstairs which has been at the centre of the fringe theatre scene for the past 30 years.

Having some familiarity of Evelyn Waugh’s work I was interested to see the first theatre production of his debut novel and all the potential this medium offers to a piece of work just crying out to be performed live in front of an audience.

Decline and Fall is set in the roaring 1920s where the onset of modernity has brought with it excess, cultural confusion and moral decline amongst the social elite. One such member of this ruling class is Paul Pennyfeather, whose personal decline begins with his expulsion from Oxford University and continues with his appointment as teacher at a failing public school (Llanabba), where he meets a number of amusing yet flawed characters including the wealthy Mrs Beste-Chetwynde, who he ends up marrying. However, the marriage is not all that it seems and the naive Paul is arrested following his involvement in Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s South American brothel business.

Sylvester McCoy plays Captain Grimes, a peg legged teacher at Llanabba whose affinity towards alcohol and contempt for monogamy culminates in his own little downfall. McCoy dips into the character with ease and brings a real charm to the role. Little touches, for example, a couple of improvised lines during a scene where champagne glasses failed to come out from his blazer pocket all adds an extra depth to the performance. McCoy successfully cultivates a real warmth from the audience and none more so a time than during Captain Grimes’ dimmed light soliloquy recalling his experiences of the First World War.

Other noteworthy performances come from Jonathan Hansler and his Basel Fawlty-esque portrayal of Dr Fagan, the headmaster at Llanabba, whose lines were delivered with impeccable comedic timing. Owen Roberts plays the shifty school butler (who has a very questionable past) with a highly entertaining east end accent, with a slightly Jewish twang.

All in all, it was fantastic seeing Waugh’s slapstick and lightening fast witty dialogue executed superbly on stage. At times the jokes come in at such a rate that it takes a great deal of concentration just to keep up.

But what I most loved was the close proximity of the performance and the way the characters sometimes use the audience and invite them to be an extension of their world. For example, the audience often played the role of the school children of Llanabba and were required to stand during morning prayers. A few late stragglers were also told to find their places by Captain Grimes – another example of McCoy’s exceptional talent for improvisation. This all made for a memorable experience.

If you had your fill of mainstream west end productions and are after something different, a visit to the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub to see Decline and Fall is highly recommended.

Decline and Fall play at the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub
Tickets: £16, £11 concessions (Thursday ‘Pay What You Can’)
Time: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm (performance schedule differs over the Christmas/New Year period – for full details please visit www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk).
Location: Old Red Lion Theatre Pub, 418 St John Street, Islington, London EC1V 4NJ
Running Time: 1hour 40minutes.