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Loft Theatre review: Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, Loft Theatre, Leamington, until October 30

By Peter McGarry

How do you like your Anne Boleyn? Hard boiled or sunny-side-up? Hapless heroine or Tudor trollop?

You might think you’ve seen them all on stage or screen at one time or another. But wait, here’s a new take on the woman who rocked old King Henry’s boat – now she’s a religious reformer and political activist.

Howard Brenton’s impudent and award-winning play sets a huge challenge to theatre companies and audiences alike. It’s a massive undertaking in terms of size, scale and deliberately outrageous time games. Not in the sense of a horrible history, more a playful periodical.

With an opening scene in which a whimsical Anne teases an audience with the bag she is carrying – does it contain her severed head? – and later moments when she haunts the fevered mind of James I we quickly learn that nothing in this oddball Tudor-Stuart hotpot is really as it seems.

The Loft company plunges bravely into the fray with a clear passion for the overall absurdity which overhangs the historical facts while inventing a few of its own. Tara L. Lacey’s direction strives valiantly to achieve the play’s varying aspects of humour, cruelty and vitality, with the benefit of magnificent costumes and Kim Green’s impressive set designs.

History buffs might quibble over issues of poetic licence, such as Anne’s fictional dealings with the religious reformer Tyndale and King Henry’s kindly tolerance of her failure to deliver a son. But at heart there is much to enjoy, notably in Pete Meredith’s barnstorming performance as James I, here an unashamed crackpot constantly raving and vanishing into trances while at the same time clearly the owner of a brilliant mind.

Dave Crossfield’s cold and calculating Thomas Cromwell and Rod Wilkinson’s fervent Tyndale are finely drawn and at the centre of the action Julia Findlay delivers Anne with cleverly contrasting shades of strength, vulnerabilty and cheeky appeal.

At close to three hours, the production is too long and lags in places, and there are some decidely mixed values in other performances. But considering the immensity of the piece and the fact that its original Loft staging was knocked out last year by Covid, this is a truly impressive achievement.

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