REVIEW: The Audience, Gielgud Theatre ✭✭✭✭

The Audience. Photo: Johan Persson
The Audience. Photo: Johan Persson

The Audience
Apollo Theatre
19 March 2013
4 Stars

Sometimes, one goes to the theatre to learn something; sometimes, to laugh; sometimes, to witness a star turn in a star vehicle; sometimes, to be confronted, challenged or be made to think; sometimes, to be thrilled; sometimes, to gain insight into territory formerly unknown; sometimes, to be moved; sometimes, to experience the wonder of good writing in the hands of actors who know exactly what they are doing and why; and sometimes, rarely it has to be said, the result of a theatrical experience can be all or none of those possibilities.

The Audience, written by Peter Morgan, starring Helen Mirren and directed by Stephen Daldry, is one of those rare theatrical experiences which embraces and delivers all of the possibilities in a rich, perfectly-pitched and played meditation on the UK Monarchy, the office of Prime Minister and the state of the evolving UK society. It is not often that one feels they could keep listening and watching the writer’s work for twelve more hours, but that was indisputably the case here.

The conceit is simple: show imagined meetings between the Queen and her PMs at various points during her reign. Not all PMs are represented, yet the Queen’s views about each seem clear by the end of the evening. The audience sees the young Monarch being patronised by Churchill, coaxing Major into statesmanship, slowly warming to Wilson, jolly with Callaghan, icy and defensive with a vitriolic Thatcher, curious about Brown, cross-examining Eden about the folly that was the Suez crisis and worn but outspoken with a tedious Cameron – and, throughout, several things are clear: the Queen’s desire to serve but not be treated like a fool; her canny ability to detect the public mood; her loathing of the press’ excesses; her love for the Commonwealth and her hatred of racism; her love for her family; her desire for privacy and, most important of all, her ordinariness, the quality she sees as the most necessary to succeed as Monarch.

Mirren is stunning; she shifts through time effortlessly, changing her voice, her gait, her attitude to suit each scene. Like the virtual crown jewel, she shines light into every aspect of the character, mining the part for every bit of humanity and humour. It is an assured masterful turn by a real star. Her confrontation with Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne makes the most monstrously perfect Thatcher) is genuinely thrilling as is her careful but tenuous reproaching of Eden (spot on Michael Elwyn). Sometimes it is hard to believe there are not two or three Mirrens, so successfully does she essay the ages.

Rufus Wright is alarmingly smarmy and true as Cameron, John Ritter wonderful as the unsure Major and Nathaniel Parker a blissfully spot-on Brown. Edward Fox made a fine, blustery Churchill (sad not to see Robert Hardy play this part) and David Peart is lovely as the forgotten Callaghan.

But it is Richard McCabe’s delightful plain and forthright Wilson that parallels the Queen’s own position most interestingly: at first outspoken and questioning (as she was with Churchill and Eden), then at home but uncomfortable at times (as she was with Callaghan, Thatcher and Major), then tiring and unsure of how to keep going in the face of old age and forgetfulness (as with Brown and Cameron).

It’s very clever and insightful writing from Morgan and Daldry brings it breath-takingly alive in every way.

There are scenes where the Queen remembers herself as a young girl and the lessons she learnt in preparation for the crown – these are warm and worthwhile and the young Elizabeth is delightful (tonight, Nell Williams). Geoffrey Beevers makes a perfectly wonderful Equerry and Harry Feltham and Matt Plumb show the Downton Abbey downstairs men how to wear a uniform and be the epitome of household service. Charlotte Moore, the Monarch’s dour practical nanny, makes a memorable contribution in her single but important scene.

Bob Crowley delivers a magnificent set and vivid period-perfect costumes and there is glorious lighting from Rick Fisher. The scene where Beaton is photographing the Queen is an unexpected delight. As is the entire evening in every way.

If all West End productions were this good, London would expire from sheer pleasure.

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