While Helen Mirren receives plaudits on Broadway, including a Tony nomination, for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth ll in Peter Morgan's play, Kristen Scott Thomas has what some might consider the unenviable task of taking over the role for a new West End run of The Audience. To say that she rises to occasion is something of an understatement.
In a rather perverse way I'm glad that I didn't get to see Helen Mirren play the part because I would have watched the new production making the inevitable comparisons. Instead I was able to sit back and enjoy the play unencumbered by any preconceptions. And there is an enormous amount to enjoy.
It centres on the weekly private audience that the monarch has with her Prime Minister — 12 so far in her reign, but I'm writing on the morning of the General Election so that might have changed by the time you read this. The audience is totally private and no minutes taken. This gives Morgan enormous room to speculate and he has a ball, with a few historical facts as his basis, safe in the knowledge that there isn't anyone about to contradict him. Not that it's all about poking fun. The play manages by turns to be moving and dramatic as well as satirical and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Events are not depicted exactly chronologically and Kristen Scott Thomas is remarkable in the way she shifts back and forth between the elderly woman we know today and the young woman new to the job and yet to be crowned. Subtle nuances of posture and changes in the pitch of the voice - aided by some remarkable on-stage quick changes - make her totally believable at every stage of the Queen's life.
Superb support comes from the cast playing her Prime Ministers: David Calder as Winston Churchill; Gordon Kennedy as Gordon Brown and Sylvestra Le Touzel as Margaret Thatcher are all spot on without resorting to caricature. As is Mark Dexter as David Cameron, who also incidentally plays Tony Blair. Whether this is just economy of casting or a bit of mischief by Morgan and director Stephen Daldry I'm not sure. Make of it what you will.
The gentle humour is punctuated by moments of aching emotion. Harold Wilson (a wonderful Nicholas Woodeson), generally regarded as being the Queen's favourite, tending his resignation after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's and a virtually broken Anthony Eden (David Robb) embroiled in the Suez crisis and caught out by the queen, who makes it her duty to read every official paper that comes her way. And there some poignant scenes where the monarch converses with her young self, emphasising how lonely her position must feel at times. “ A postage stamp with a pulse”, as she puts it.
Given where we are in the political landscape, the play is in a state of flux. Cameron is seen in his last audience before the election, so no doubt that will be revised by Morgan to reflect the General Election result — and the bloke rehearsing Milliband is back on the phone to his agent.
Whatever the changes, The Audience will remain a superb piece of theatre; brilliantly written, simply but effectively staged, and with faultless performances led by a sublime Kristen Scott Thomas.
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