The Silver King

Melodrama fit for a king

Henry Arthur Jones made his name in 1882 with The Silver King (with a little help in the middle act from Henry Herman), now gloriously revived by Peter Wood and his regular designer, Carl Toms, at the Chichester Festival Theatre. It is a good example of the author's humane Victorian tosh before it became Ibsenite, and it provides a great baggy role, with an abundance of 'moments', for its star.

Alan Howard's return to the boards after a five-year gap is not only an occasion to relish; it is a reminder that the history of the British theatre is, in the first place, written by its actors.

With most of its asides deleted (I don't think this is cheating), Wood's open-stage treatment, one of conspicuous fluency, also reveals a wonderful panoramic view of the Victorian criminal underworld. Its denizens ensnare the innocent dissolute, Wilfred Denver, on Derby Day in a smoke-filled tavern, after he has lost all his money.

Implicated in the murder of his wife's former admirer, Denver then jumps on a train to Liverpool, jumps off it en route, reads of his own 'death' in the subsequent disaster, and reinvents himself in America in order to redeem both his impoverished family and his own reputation. Offstage in Nevada, he strikes lucky as a miner, returning in mysterious splendour as 'The Silver King', having incidentally activated a police campaign in search of the incriminating master burglar and his gang.

The Silver King

The technical handling of the story and its ramifications is superb, and in stripping off the pantomime veneer, Wood offers an enchanting galere of fully-rounded, colourful characters, notably Richard Moore's silken villain who regards poverty as the only true crime, John Turner's glowering Scottish detective, Garry Cooper's flagrant Cockney spiv, Tony Britton's surprisingold family retainer and Jessica Turner's unflinchingly loyal spouse.

Howard - tall, elegant, feline - has eyes like currants, a banana nose and a quizzical chin. He thus oscillates easily, and perfectly, between haunted angularity and aristocratic poise. He cowers like a holy fool on his uppers and dreams himself into the oblivion from which, like a venerably restored chieftain in snakeskin boots and silver-sleek hair, he so magnificently awakes to achieve retribution.

The real Howard hallmark is the voice, which has tended in the past towards clarion mannerism and petulant strain. Here, the instrument is under perfect control and its considerable musical properties well lavished on expressions of fear, deceit, sorrow, disgust and the climactic, yelping cry of 'Innocent!'

The evening is sheer delight, and the most important reclamation of a chunk of the popular repertoire since Howard and the RSC dug up Wild Oats.

Michael Coveney 'on Alan Howard's triumph at Chichester....'

Observer, 22.7.90.

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