The coming of Edinburgh means new young actors and writers springing up and testing their material on tough London audiences before heading north. I went and saw Who Shot Liberty Valance in the Finsbury Park theatre, and it was fantastic. And then I went and saw The Man Who Would Be King in Battersea, and it was even better.

The Man Who Would Be King
Daniel and Peachy in The Man Who Would Be King

Written and directed by Dan Coleman, who has shredded Rudyard Kipling’s original novella by the same name (and you may remember the movie adaptation) to create this one hour play, it features two actors only – Christopher Birks and Dan Nicholson.

The production I saw was a small one, in the Lachmere Theatre, which, while a charming space, is essentially a very hot room above a pub. I took my uncomfortable seat amongst the full audience with trepidation, aware that I was against a wall and that there was, therefore, no escape from this sweltering square, should the Edinburgh-bound play prove terrible. My fears were unfounded. 

Set in Afghanistan, the play opens to one man onstage, talking to his superior officer, a non-existent and essential part in the play, who sits amongst the audience. Played by a wide-eyed and twitching Christopher Birks, Daniel Dravot is a man who has been stationed on his own for five years in the middle of the desert, and who has just brought in an ex-soldier, almost dead from exposure, for whose story the invisible general is present. Peachy Callaghan is thus introduced, led to a small table beneath a single lightbulb with a bag over his head,  hands and feet bound with bloody rags. Dan Nicholson, tanned and overly hirsute, plays the madness of the dehydrated and desperate with utter conviction.

Two-man plays can grow monotonous, but this is anything but, as Birks assumes various characters to job Peachy’s failing memory, and bring the facts of what have passed to light in front of his superior. What has happened? Where has he been? And where is his partner, who accompanied him when he set off with one objective – to become a king. It should be mentioned at this point that I am not usually interested in dramatisations of war – but this play rises above its setting and even its plot with snappy dialogue and the ever-present non-presence of the boding, judging General. 

In a production featuring a myriad of accents, songs and even a ersatz puppet, you’ll find yourself utterly absorbed by two young men who become any number of characters, until you forget that you’re in a small hot room, forget that the staging consists of boxes and a table – until you are drawn into a story of war and subjugation and rebellion that is just awful enough to be plausible.

The source material might be dated but the end result is anything but, retaining Kipling’s humour and rhetoric while thoroughly modernizing a well-known tale. I won’t spoil the end for you – though it might make it more bearable – but if one word remains with you, it will be this one: deniability.

You’ve got ONE chance to see this before the play heads to Edinburgh, and you’ve not got much time to procure tickets. But if you see only one piece of theatre this year, make it this one – and if you’re planning on heading to Edinburgh, then fit this into your schedule. You won’t regret it. But you might cry.

For tickets to the New Diorama Theatre in London on July 26th, click here.

If you’d like to check out the play in Edinburgh, click here. 

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