We see here a sharp-witted woman who despite her duties and trappings yearns to be a simple girl, free to walk outside and do as she pleases
In a week where the Queen has suffered a stomach bug that forced her to cancel commitments dear to her heart such as a service for Commonwealth nations, it is poignant that in The Audience Peter Morgan shows how Her Majesty detests being ill.
We see here a sharp-witted woman who despite her duties and trappings yearns to be a simple girl, free to walk outside and do as she pleases. This is reflected in flashbacks and cleverly crafted conversations with herself as a young “gel”.
She is confined by protocol and the dark halls of Buckingham Palace where she will receive prime minister after prime minister over a reign that (so far) has spanned 60 years. From the outset she makes her mark: she wants to be involved and kept up to speed on all events, particularly when they are shielded from her like the Suez Crisis. Yet she is exasperated when the request to take her husband’s name is refused.
Morgan is on familiar territory here both with characters and his leading lady (he directed The Queen), yet he deliberately whitewashes the second annus horribilis, 1997, with Diana’s death. And Tony Blair? Well, he’s nowhere to be seen, which I find rather amusing.
As far as a traditional structure of a theatrical play goes, it falls a little short as there can be little plot in a series of sketches where the weekly audience with the Queen change so rapidly, and the theme is a thin one but there are some superb vignettes and performances.
Paul Ritter as John Major and Richard McCabe as Harlold Wilson (purported to be one of the Queen’s favourite PMs) are superb. “Ee, you’re a Labour girl at heart,” Wilson says.
The script is tight and clever and gives Helen Mirren some superb one-liners which are delivered with perfect timing and pitch. The costume changes and transformation of Mirren backwards and forwards in time are seamlessly executed and the surprise appearance of excited corgis was a real crowd pleaser.
One does get a real sense of ceremony and pomp through the simplest of touches such as stepping footmen and a panicky equerry who dashes to find a book, “any book”, in Balmoral where he has clearly had to run the length and breadth of the castle.
There were touching moments also, when the news is given that the Royal Yacht Britannia is to be decommissioned and when Harold Wilson announces his resignation due to Alzheimer’s.
It was an engrossing production and a treat to see such a plethora of talent on stage but as my savvy companion Mr Legris commented, it is surely the tourists who will flock to it in their droves come springtime.
The Audience is on at the Gielgud Theatre until 15 June