Review: The Audience, Apollo Theatre

Published in The Independent on May 5, 2015

We’re on the brink of discovering who our next prime minister will be, a royal princess has just been born… it seems the perfect time to revive Peter Morgan’s hit play, staging the private audiences between Queen Elizabeth II and her various prime ministers.

It’s a quick revival, and partial rewrite – Stephen Daldry’s production only premiered in 2013. Yet the timing was, apparently, coincidental – chosen to suit new lead, Kristin Scott Thomas. The pressure’s on, mind: Helen Mirren’s just been nominated for a Tony for her performance in the role on Broadway.

Scott Thomas is certainly regal: elegant, refined, chin lifted and nose looked down. This is a rather arch interpretation; the slightest pursing of lips may suggest one is amused, or deeply disapproving. She glides smooth and cool as marble through on-stage costume changes and time-shifts. Looks-wise, it’s not the most natural fit – Scott Thomas is just glamorous in a way even twinsets over fatsuits for the later years can’t hide – but her slicing comic subtlety is a treat. Daldry’s direction is crisp, each short scene with each prime minister fully-realised, while also ricocheting off one another with precision.

It is not, we are frequently reminded, the Queen’s place to rule – but in Morgan’s imaginative portrait she exerts a shrewd influence. Indeed, his vision is a little fawning: wise and just and pious, her advice is always on the side of the angels… politically, at least; she’s more blinkered on the need for the Royal Family to modernise and spend less (it’s hard to have much sympathy when she says “that yacht means everything to me,” though I think we’re meant to).

Taking the long-view allows Morgan to find some wry parallels – in new scenes, her Maj cautions Tony Blair and Anthony Eden against military intervention in Iraq and Suez; both use the exact same warmongering words (“the right thing is to go in now, and go in hard”). An amusingly cruel bit of casting sees the same actor – Mark Dexter – play both Blair and David Cameron…

The cast are good all round: Gordon Kennedy’s lumbering Gordon Brown almost gets a round of applause he’s so familiar. And he’s not the only PM wracked with self-loathing. Almost all have their nerves, ticks and insecurities, put to good comic effect, but ultimately imbuing the show with compassion. They did seek out power, of course – whereas by introducing a reluctant childhood Elizabeth, we’re reminded (a little heavy-handedly) that the mournful regent had no choice.

The play is most enjoyable in the most extreme encounters – Morgan really goes for it in an icy battle of gilded wills between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher (a sonorous Sylvestra Le Touzel). Meanwhile, a surprisingly intimate relationship with Harold Wilson is based on mutual mockery across the class divide. Nicholas Woodeson plays Wilson as a chippy but jolly gnome, and their odd-couple friendship adds a core of true feeling in what could risk being a series of policy chats. Thankfully, Morgan’s imagination too audacious for that. Long live the audience!

To 25 Jul;

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