I feel so lucky and honoured to have been a guest at last night’s press night for The Audience. Thank you Annie and Playful. And what a night because Peter Morgan’s new play lives up to its hype and I loved every minute.
The Audience imagines Her Majesty’s weekly audiences with her twelve prime ministers spanning sixty years and cleverly switches time lines rather than showing these meetings chronologically. Actually only eight PM’s are portrayed, Harold McMillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath and Tony Blair, although mentioned do not appear. Those who do materialise don’t insult us with caricatures, but instead portray the essence of their respective famous selves. Like Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett in Cocktail Sticks and Hymn, so good is the acting and staging that one is lulled into believing one is privy to the actual private meetings with the actual people. And Helen Mirren does it better than any. As one critic has said, “Helen Mirren is now so good at playing The Queen that you could put her on stamps and people would lick them”. She is effortless in the way she moves from the young Queen Elizabeth to middle-aged to present day and back again. And so, so plausible whatever period of her reign she’s inhabiting. Not easy at the best of times, but made even more difficult on stage when the quick costume changes often require her to swap wigs and costumes in full view of the audience. Actually, not full view, as the dressers stand between her and us, but near enough. She cannot be faulted and I am in awe of her talent.
As no one else is privy to these weekly audiences, Peter Morgan’s play is all fiction. But such is his skill and I would think utmost respect for The Queen, that he manages to bring out the human side of this iconic and dutiful woman who is far more than her description, “a postage stamp with a pulse”. He imbues her with compassion, grace, honesty and humour. Whilst he is obviously taking liberties with what actually transpires between her and her various PM’s, nothing is cringe making and almost everything is plausible.
The first audience is with Paul Ritter’s affecting John Major. I admire him greatly, even more so now. He is very, very funny but also touching, never more so than when he breaks down and Her Majesty offers him a handkerchief. He is totally believable. The other plaudit must go to Richard McCabe’s Harold Wilson. Whilst I’m sure his over familiarity is the stuff of imagination, he makes an extremely believable Wilson. If, as intimated, he was one of The Queen’s favourite Prime Ministers, basing it on this portrayal, I can quite see why.
During the course of the play, the plummy young Elizabeth, expertly brought to life last night by child actress, Nell Williams, appears on stage and conducts a conversation with her older and wiser self. The line “No one will ever call you by your name, or look you in the eye” speaks volumes.
Stephen Daldry demonstrates his directorial excellence and directs a pitch perfect production. No small task, as on first reading the play must have come across as a logistical nightmare. He is ably aided and abetted by Rick Fisher’s wonderful lighting and Bob Crowley’s atmospheric design. With just a couple of chairs, a desk, couple of chandeliers and marble pillars, we’re actually in Buckingham Palace. And the move to Balmoral is equally believable. Add to the mix the amazing wigs, courtesy of Peter Owen and Ivana Primorac’s wizardry with the hair and make-up and you’re left with one amazing team.
And there is another bonus. Two corgis bound on stage during the scene at Balmoral. Who said you shouldn’t work with children and animals?