Cromwell's 55 Days: tale of England's only military coup

Oct 29, 2012

Mark Gatiss and Douglas Henshall retell power struggle between Charles I and Cromwell

Catherine Ashmore

What you need to know
A new historical drama, 55 Days by British playwright Howard Brenton (The Romans of Britain and Anne Boleyn) has opened at Hampstead Theatre. It tells the story of the 55-day military coup in the mid-1600s when Cromwell's army took control of Parliament and moved to put King Charles I on trial for treason.

55 Days explores the relationship between Charles and Cromwell, and Cromwell's struggles to reach a compromise with both the King and the more hardline elements among his own supporters.

Howard Davies directs a cast featuring Mark Gatiss (Mycroft in the TV series Sherlock Holmes) as King Charles I and Douglas Henshall (ITV's Primeval) as Oliver Cromwell. Runs until 24 November.

What the critics like
This excellent production uses the past to examine the present, says Michael Billington in The Guardian. Like a Brecht play, it shows the conflict between theory and action, as parties debate the future of parliamentary sovereignty. "But the real pleasure lies in seeing a pivotal moment in English history presented with such fervent dramatic power."

This is a chewy, fascinating new play, says Libby Purves in The Times. Henshall, gives us "a still, burning, troubled" Cromwell, while Gatiss, beaky and disdainful, "beautifully delivers Brenton's 17th-century rhythms".

This is a demanding evening that pays handsome dividends, says Paul Taylor in The Independent. A strong cast pithily flesh out the dilemmas tormenting these key players. Douglas Henshall "commandingly conveys the inner turmoil of Cromwell" and Charles I is "rivetingly played by Mark Gatiss".

What they don't like
If you don't know the background, this play is hard work, says Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph. It's like two double history periods with a 15-minute break for a crafty fag behind the bike sheds to deal with information overload. "But if you do a bit of homework first, this is an evening that really grips."

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