Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Decline and Fall

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Decline and Fall

Article excerpt

So Great a Crime Finborough, Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays until 22 January Old Money Hampstead, until 12 January Filmic structures are always tricky on stage.

David Mamet, an exception, can get away with writing long chains of scenes that last a couple of minutes each. But the theatre prefers to relax, to snuggle down, to linger slowly over every morsel of a many-layered spread. Encountering a screenplay on stage is like receiving a box of Milk Tray in a restaurant and being told it's a 32-course meal.

David Gooderson's made-for-TV script concerns an Edwardian sex scandal featuring teenage boys and lauded grandees. Sir Hector MacDonald (aka Fighting Mac) was a crofter's son who enlisted as an infantryman and reached the rank of major-general during a 20-year career. To rise so high without a private income was pretty rare in Britain's gentry-loving military. Fighting Mac was posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to serve as General Officer Commanding and it's here that we first meet him. And what a pest he is.

He's a chippy, moralising disciplinarian, and his chief talent is for barking orders at nervous subalterns and refusing the offer of a wee drinkie on the verandah. As a Highlander, he secretly loathes the suave English colonists who laze around the hill stations of Ceylon playing cricket, pouring whiskies down their throats and holding fancy-dress parties as if they were all ensconced in cosy Woking. With no fighting for Fighting Mac to do, he must rely on his diplomatic skills.

But he has none. Expected to waltz with the Governor's wife at a ball, he shouts across the room, 'It's my duty to dance with you. So let's move into position.' 'General, ' she says, 'I'm not a gun carriage.'

Fighting Mac prefers the company of a lowly Ceylonese bank clerk whose teenage sons he lavishes with gifts. But danger lurks in these innocent connections. A plot is afoot to oust him from the colony. He's accused of improper conduct with the boys.

Busy tongues then claim that Fighting Mac exposed himself to some kids on a train.

(In fact, he'd popped into the jungle for a slash while the line was being cleared after a rockfall. ) To prevent a scandal, the Governor persuades him to take the first steamer back to England. But his flight is interpreted as guilt. From this moment, the play turns into a tragic thriller full of contemporary resonances. Fighting Mac was a celebrity in the Edwardian world. His stern, resolute features were distributed on cigarette cards and Empire tea caddies around the globe. …

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