The Audience – Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London – review by Carole Woddis.

There is one notable exception to the parade of Prime Ministers writer Peter Morgan presents before Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience.  Tony Blair is conspicuous by his absence.  But then, Morgan, the scriptwriter for Stephen Frears’ 2006 blockbusting film, The Queen and also author of the multi-award winning Frost/Nixon and the compulsively viewable tv account of the toxic Blair/Brown relationship may have felt himself `written out’ where Blair is concerned.

Whatever the reasons, this highly entertaining, articulate, witty stage sequel to The Queen delivers two unlikely heroes.  Apart from The Queen herself that is, whom Morgan subtly showers with softly liberal leanings drawn from lifelong support for the Commonwealth (otherwise dispatched by Mrs Thatcher in terms it would be too indelicate to repeat here!) and the pleasure she took in former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.  Harold, in Richard McCabe’s rich and hugely enjoyable portrayal, it is who shines like a good deed in a naughty world.

With his photographic memory – there’s a delicious scene at Balmoral where he recalls wodges of type from a moment’s glance at the only book HRH can lay her hands on, German military history (another discreet Morgan joke) – and blunt northern directness,  the two appear, unlikely as it seems, to get on like a house on fire.  Indeed, one of the most poignant moments comes as Wilson reveals to her his declining mental abilities that forced him to resign.

Morgan’s other `favourite’ – and again, beautifully enunciated in Paul Ritter’s unfastidious performance – is John Major, the `invisible man’ who confesses he never wanted to be Prime Minister and tried hard to make himself inconspicuous.  `You haven’t been very successful, then’, quips Her Madge.

It brings the house down as does a trail of similarly light, frothy repartees, delivered by the magnificent Mirren with due crispness in a production by Stephen Daldry that, like Mirren, never misses a beat in creating an event that could simply not be replicated on celluloid.

That is its brilliance.  Politically light, it is also intensely theatrical, exploiting Mirren’s uncanny likeness to the royals (at one moment, as the young Queen Elizabeth, she looks extraordinarily like Princess Margaret) with a series of on-stage quick changes, turning from septuagenarian to debutante Queen taking lessons in protocol from elder statesman, Winston Churchill, then again turning back from youngster to wider-hipped octogenarian, all the while her clipped RP accent dipping and changing according to the passing years.

It’s a fascinating theatrical feat and if Morgan who has clearly done his historical homework can only imagine the conversations between monarch and PMs over six decades – the weekly Audience has always been conducted under strict laws of confidentiality giving Prime Ministers a place to unburden, safe in the knowledge of its contents never being divulged – his assumptions are wholly benign and sympathetic to the continuation of the constitutional monarchy.  He even, somewhat generously, ascribes to her an early critique on the Suez debacle deduced he has her arguing from careful reading of the Cabinet papers sent to her on a daily basis.

As the decades come and go and Britain enters periods of social unrest, political turmoil and economic meltdown still the Queen remains, mostly, herself, a pillar of discretion and accumulating wisdom.

Providing a humanising alter ego in the shape of young Elizabeth to try to imagine what goes on behind that inscrutable public mask, what emerges however, apart from the personal side of a woman corralled into silence by her situation, is an unequivocal defence of constitutional monarchy itself.

After all, concludes a sonorous voice-over at the end, why wouldn’t you support it when you compare The Queen to the shower of Prime Ministers that have gone before.

It’s an amusing comment in keeping with the rest of the evening.  It appears innocuous but it strikes home, every time.  After this, republicanism?  Pah!

The Audience is at the Gielgud Theatre, London to June 15, 2013; see www.theaudienceplay.com

Carole Woddis © March 10, 2013.