Miles Kington: Is it curtains for the miscast leading players?

I have misgivings about Jack Straw. I feel he is not quite the right actor for the part of Foreign Secretary
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The Independent Online

Having a son who is doing theatre studies at A-Level is a great excuse for my wife to drag the family off to the theatre more frequently than is sensible, so we have been seeing plays at the rate of about one a week for a month or two, and I have a funny feeling that we are going to go on doing it until either my son gets good exam results or we see a play in which the central character is not miscast.

I have already mentioned our recent visit to Michael Bogdanov's production of Hamlet at the New Theatre, Cardiff in which Hamlet is bafflingly played by a not-young, not-thin, not-fit actor. We have also been to see Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged, in which Anthony Head shines but in which Richard E Grant is generally agreed to be rather wrong as the leading player.

And this week we have been to see Rebecca at the Theatre Royal, Bath. Not, I hasten to add, as part of my son's theatre studies. In fact, Daphne du Maurier's novel was the most recent book discussed by the reading group to which my wife belongs, so she was intrigued to see how it translated to the stage.

Unimpressively, we thought. This particular production has been touring all year, so it is surprising that it is not yet firing on all cylinders, though I suppose that if you are selling out because you have two big names in a show (one being Rebecca and the other Nigel Havers), you don't need to bother with a lot of after-sales service on the problems.

Alas, one of the problems is Nigel Havers. He too is miscast. Lightweight, off-hand charm is not the main quality needed for Maxim de Winter. In fact, it is not any of the qualities needed for Maxim de Winter.

It may be because of these experiences that when I recently read Sir Christopher Meyer's descriptions of various members of the New Labour Cabinet as political pygmies, or Jack Straw as being more to be liked than admired, or John Prescott simply as "poor old John Prescott", that I suddenly saw these as the comments, not of a diplomat, but of a theatre critic.

What he may well be saying is that John Prescott is hopelessly miscast as the deputy leader of the Labour Party, and might be better off playing the part of the chauffeur.

I realise now that I have had similar misgivings about Jack Straw myself for some time. I can't help feeling that he is not quite the right actor to play the part of Foreign Secretary. I say this in the first place because of my tendency to fall asleep every time he comes on the Today programme to do his performance.

Performance? I mean his act as the foreign emissary hurrying through Heathrow Airport and kindly pausing to explain to us everything that the Foreign Office has recently explained to him.

"The point is, Jim," he says, by way of preamble, and you immediately feel your attention wandering before he has started, so dreary is his delivery, so grey, so monotone, so colourless.

If he does this to us, what effect will he have on the audiences he will be playing to abroad? Tony Blair is clearly a much better actor. He was always brilliant as the future Prime Minister. Unfortunately, that is not a role you can sustain after you have started winning elections, so he has had to take over a long-running role as the incumbent youthful Prime Minister.

And it seems to many of us (not least Rory Bremner) that he has sustained that role with a diminishing repertoire of acting mannerisms.

He is coming under increasing pressure to hand over the role to his long-time understudy, Gordon Brown, never having quite managed to grow into his role in the way the Queen so successfully has into hers. (This is not true of all royalty. I fear that Prince Charles may always have been badly miscast for his role of Prince of Wales...)

The only people who clearly realise that it IS a matter of correct casting are the Tory Party, who are currently holding auditions for the part of the Tory leader, putting the two leading contenders on the road in an out-of-town tour, to see which one should do the London run. Fair enough. My son and I are just praying that my wife isn't tempted to take us to one of their shows.

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