Theatre review: The Audience, Gielgud Theatre, London

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Following her Oscar winning performance in Stephen Frear’s 2006 film The Queen, Helen Mirren once again slips into Elizabeth II’s sensible court shoes in the West End smash, The Audience.

She does it with such aplomb that I wonder whether the actual real-life Queen, standing “we are not amused”-like watching The Script at Radio 1 wishes she could employ Dame Helen as her life understudy. Or if one night she might fancy treading the boards and coming on as herself in The Audience. Although, she’d probably get panned for not playing herself as well as HRM (her Royal Mirren). For The Audience is as much about Mirren as it is about the Queen.

The audience refers to the weekly meeting between The Queen and her Prime Minister, a ritual that’s found it’s way into the British constitution allows the PM to discuss matters – both state and personal – of the day and the Queen to drop in a few sensible words of advice (usually: resign). David Cameron is the 12th PM to sit opposite her Maj once a week; if he dies suddenly before the next election then Nick Clegg will be her 13th, something Peter Morgan’s Lizzy II would no doubt see the funnies in.

Peter Morgan was also the man behind 2006’s The Queen, and he picks up (his no doubt souvenir Buckingham Palace) pen again to write this wholly fictional account of this very private ritual. No minutes are kept and even QE2’s trusted servants are banished from the room. No PM has ever blabbed about their weekly 20-minutes with The Crown and The Queen has yet to take to Twitter to spill the beans on what Cameron and Clegg really think of each other. So Morgan has little but rumour, Prime Ministers’ reputations (Thatcher’s demented; Major’s a cry baby) and imagination to go on.

The play, which behind the green curtain of its star performance, is slight and pantomime-light, at times careening off into caricature status – like Spitting Image without any of the  caustic humour, most of the PMs’ reputations are left remarkably unscatched – manages to be bigger than the sum of its parts thanks to HM, who is brilliant. She takes her 2006 role and adds humour, a dash of political flair and a dose of every-dayness to her Maj’s little chats with our dear leaders. Or some of them at least, there are notable absences, most obviously no Blair (was that to avoid The Queen comparisons? Is he too recent and complicated a leader to distill into a non confrontational script?).

Morgan spins the word on the (Downing) street that no-nonsense Labour man Harold Wilson was her favourite Prime Minister (some say after Churchill, but that wouldn’t have made quite so an amusing face-off). Shamefully I know little of Wilson, in fact most of my knowledge on the Labour leader came from a recent reading of Ian McEwan’s (brilliant) Sweet Tooth. But I doubt very much he was anything like the rude, naive, over-awed, “oop north’ buffoon he’s depicted as being in this play. But I enjoyed the Queen’s and Wilson’s moments, played out like a tale of friendly understanding across the great class divide and Richard McCabe’s Wilson did have most of the best lines – I particularly enjoyed his take down of Balmoral and the current Monarchy’s German ancestry.

Inbetween her tete-a-tetes, which aren’t told in chronological order, there are flashback scenes of a spirited Elizabeth as a young princess struggling to come to terms with her future as a Monarch. The scenes, designed to add a humanness to HRM, a humanness I’m not particularly interested in and I think adds little value, left me a little queasy, not helped by the young Queen coming across like the eighth member of the Secret Seven (the Esoteric EightEnid Blyton’s great, unfinished novel).

The Audience is sentimental, at times almost mawkish, but it’s charming, if unchallenging and often very funny. And it’s been a long time since I saw quite such a standing ovation…

by Suzanne Elliott

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