THEATRE REVIEW: Face to face and heart to heart with a stage classic

Sir John Major (Paul Ritter) and Queen Elizabeth II (Dame Helen Mirren) in The Audience, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephan Daldry and designed by Bob Crowley.  Photo by Johan Persson.
Sir John Major (Paul Ritter) and Queen Elizabeth II (Dame Helen Mirren) in The Audience, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephan Daldry and designed by Bob Crowley. Photo by Johan Persson.
  • Sixty Years, Thirteen Prime Ministers, One Queen

The Audience - National Theatre Live, South Holland Centre, Spalding

Rarely has politics been made so entertaining and yet so compelling as playwright Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry have managed to do with The Audience.

Of course, the play would be just a star-shaped hole without the presence of Dame Helen Mirren who avoids a direct impersonation of Her Majesty, opting instead for an Oscar-winning actress’s view of the reigning monarch’s mothering of eight out of her 13 Prime Ministers since coming to the throne 1952.

From Winston Churchill, played with grandeur by the statemanlike Edward Fox, to David Cameron (Rufus Wright as a creature of spin), Mirren as the Queen uses a sympathetic ear, a dry wit and a gentle persuasion as she deals with each one.

The play’s most notable scenes feature the Queen with John Major (Paul Ritter), including the exchange “I only ever wanted to be ordinary” (Major), “Well, in which way do you consider you have failed in that ambition?” (Queen).

Another memorable line from Major is “When I walk into a room, heads fails to turn” and when the Queen suggests to him an idea of fighting a leadership election to silence his Eurosceptic critics based on the slogan “Beware the Quiet Man”, Major replies “Beware the Invisible Man”.

The Audience with Dame Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II.  Photo by Johan Persson.

The Audience with Dame Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. Photo by Johan Persson.

But Mirren’s place as the play’s star was regularly challenged by a quite superb portrayal of Harold Wilson by Richard McCabe, allegedly the Queen’s favourite Prime Minister.

In one scene, Her Majesty takes Wilson totally out of his comfort zone by inviting him and his wife Mary for a weekend in Balmoral.

Glad to see the inside of a Scottish sitting room after being caught in pouring rain, Wilson tries to endear himself to one of the Queen’s Corgis, only to find himself watching on in embarrassment as the dog runs between his legs.

The Audience is Queen indeed.

I only ever wanted to be ordinary (Major), Well, in which way do you consider you have failed in that ambition? (Queen)

Sir John Major (Paul Ritter) and Queen Elizabeth II (Dame Helen Mirren) in The Audience

Review by Winston Brown