James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock

There’s the feel of a gladiatorial arena to the staging of Rona Munro’s trilogy of James Plays, not least because some audience members seated on a raised area above the stage, looking down on a giant sword thrust into the saltire that covers the floor.

Munro’s sizzling script is finely directed by National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom

James I spent many years as a “guest” of the English king, Henry V and the action opens just before he returns to Scotland to take back the throne from his uncle, Murdac Stewart. Deals have been made and yet, even though James appears soft and English, he soon proves himself tougher than expected. Treachery ensues.

Steven Miller’s lithe portrayal of the displaced king is absorbing and he brings tangible frustration to his relationship with his wife Joan, played with ditzy Desperate/Stepfordness by Rosemary Boyle. Regents Isabella and Murdac Stewart (Blythe Duff and John Stahl) convey people who would do simply anything to keep from losing land, title and status. And they do so with forceful intensity. Sally Reid’s Meg is an earthy, laughter rousing character who not so gently teaches the new queen a thing or two about her adopted people, though Meg and Queen Joan are more caricatures than characters.

The Key Will Keep the Lock is part exploration of Scottish national identity and part absorbing family saga, with much dirty dealing, subterfuge and intrigue. All of life’s emotions are crammed in – love, lust, fear, jealousy, passion, anger and brief happiness – witnessed at very close hand by some audience members. Munro has taken some liberties with history, and set and costume designer Jon Bausor has followed the lead of television historical fantasy drama (there is a man plait) with modern takes on Middle Ages style.

Still, Munro’s sizzling script is finely directed by National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom, who draws out strong performances from his cast. With some beautifully sung re-worked poetry of the time, truly exciting fight scenes and cracking one liners (particularly King Henry’s blunt description of what it is to be a king), the first part of the James Trilogy is a strong starter.

Reviews by Sarah McIntosh

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James I: The Key Will Keep The Lock

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Bold and irreverent storytelling explores the complex character of this colourful Stewart king – a poet, a lover, a law-maker but also the product of a harsh political system.

James I of Scotland was captured when he was only 13 and became King of Scots in an English prison. 18 years later he's finally delivered back home with a ransom on his head and a new English bride. He's returning to a poor nation, the royal coffers are empty and his nobles are a pack of wolves ready to tear him apart at the first sign of weakness. But James has his own ideas about how to be a king and, after 18 years, he finally has the chance to realise them. James is determined to bring the rule of law to a land riven by warring families, but that struggle will force him to make terrible choices if he is to save himself, his Queen and the crown.

Featuring Blythe Duff as Isabella of Lennox.