REVIEW: Henry's End by Blackpool Tower Dungeon troupe is a gruesome comedy with a heart of gold

The year is 1547, and King Henry VIII lays dying, afflicted by a festering leg wound, covered in painful, pus-filled boils, with only his trusty court jester Will Summers for company.

As the night wears on, the king is visited by the ghostly apparitions of those he has wronged throughout his life. It’s all an act, of course… or is it?

The Octavius Theatre Company, made up of actors from the Blackpool Tower Dungeon, took to the stage at The Old Electric on Friday night for their first performance of Henry’s End, which depicted the final hours of Britain’s most infamous monarch, King Henry VIII.

The show, written by Luke Cheadle, was originally conceived as a radio play, which demonstrated itself quite obviously onstage. Henry, suffering from a jousting injury, was bound to a chair for the majority of the performance, while other characters acted around him. There were no scene changes, indeed no scenery to speak of, and so it was a testament to the writing and acting talents of the cast that the show remained consistently entertaining, with no muck-ups. With a tiny cast and a barren stage, the risk of a single dodgy line or lacklustre delivery arising to spoil the whole thing was significant.

Luke Berryman as Will Summers in Henry's End

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    Dan Wilson starred as a humourously tyrannical Henry, a booming, Brian Blessed-type, while Luke Berryman played Will Summers, a jester with a talent for impersonating dead wives. Director Billie Hindle doubled as Henry’s beleaguered doctor, Chloe Hindle was Catherine of Aragon and Emily Hobbs was Anne Boleyn. Writer Luke Cheadle played a minor role as Henry’s groomsman.

    At just about an hour long, Henry’s End was concise and well-suited to its small number of players. Henry and Will take on most of the heavy lifting when it comes to lines; any longer and it might have risked turning into a filibuster.

    Some very basic knowledge of the life of King Henry was required to fully enjoy the play (the names and fates of his unfortunate wives, the grisly execution of his advisor Thomas More, the loss of his brother and the looming demise of his son, Edward VI, just six years after Henry’s own death). Luckily, the residual memories of my Year 8 history class helped me along.

    Despite the gruesome nature of its premise and the unsavoury reputation of its main character, Henry’s End was, for the most part, a comedy, with amusing lines here and there eliciting some laughs from the audience. It could never be mistaken for a big budget production, however, this fact worked in its favour. With no bells and whistles to distract the audience, the passion the players had for the show and its characters was enshrined on full display. What Henry’s End lacked in body it more than made up for with a heart of gold, plainly visible through its bare – but sturdy – bones.

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