Review: The President Has Come To See You, Royal Court

 “Do you know what is going on in Georgia?”

In a bold move as her opening salvo as incoming Artistic Director of the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone has reimagined the way in which theatre is consumed in this venue with a range of innovative approaches suggested by a group of over 140 writers. The biggest of these is probably the Weekly Rep, a company of 14 actors and 4 directors performing 6 plays by new writers over 6 weeks, which started tonight with Georgian playwright Lasha Bugadze’s The President Has Come To See You, previously seen here as a rehearsed reading earlier in the year.

Knowing my all-or-nothing tendencies, I had hoped that the ensemble would be full of actors I did not care for so that I’d be able to resist booking, but it was not to be with the likes of a re-bearded Ferdy Roberts, Ryan Sampson, Laura Elphinstone and Siobhan Redmond luring me to Sloane Square, even though the prospect of the play itself did not really appeal. And it was that inner voice nagging away that I ought to have paid more attention to, as the bizarre twists and turns of this post-Soviet surrealist adventure left me cold.

When war threatens the land again, the president opts to cut his losses and run, disappearing into the relative obscurity of the general populace but finding his own serious quirks and foibles magnified by those of his people. A little background reading suggests this is a brave satire on former President Saakashvili, though this passed me by and I was left largely unmoved and unamused by the near-farcical goings-on.

There’s some pleasure in seeing a talented cast in such a spirited atmosphere of fun – Vicky Featherstone directs with a loose, playful sensibility – but these moments were too few and far between for my liking. Watching Ryan Sampson bluffing with his muffin raises a chuckle and Paul Bhattacharjee’s president, always accompanied by Alan Williams’ faithful Dave the Driver, is well played. But elsewhere, the likes of Sam Troughton, Ferdy Roberts and Jonjo O’Neill are given far too little to work on to really impress – here’s hoping they have better opportunities later in the season – and Chloe Lamford’s functional set design, which has to work across all six shows, offers little of particular inspiration to make the staging really pop. 

The weekly rep feels like as much of a risk for the audience as it is for the Royal Court and I have to say I was glad I held out for a late bargain in order to get my ticket – the idea of paying £20 a go to see all six of these plays was already a big ask and feels even less likely now. But by its very nature, such a wide-ranging enterprise was never going to please all of the people all of the time and I’m willing to be convinced to go along again to see another configuration of this excellent company and hopefully be more enthused. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval) 
Booking until 15th June

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