We should probably put SPOILER ALERT in here and have done with it, but judging by the papers in the last week it seems the press were in at its first preview; the spoiling has already been done.
This is not just a play, it’s a news item; so eagerly anticipated that disappointment might almost seem inevitable.
If it initially seemed surprising that Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Helen Mirren would revisit playing HMQ (the part she famously won an Oscar for in The Queen by Peter Morgan of Frost/Nixon etc fame) the reasons soon become evident.
The Audience comes from the pen of that film’s writer with Stephen Daldry returning to directing for the stage after 4 films (“together received 19 Academy Award nominations and 2 wins” according to the programme) and a slew of well-known theatre names portraying British Prime Ministers over the last 61 years on board too. It’s enough to bring back the ticket tout.
Even more discombobulatingly the 67 year-old Dame has the mountainous task of depicting her from accession at the age of 25 right up to the absolute present (there’s a reference to a news event of a few days ago which got a huge laugh but would be unfair to spoil, and no, it’s nothing to do with horses, though perhaps that will be added too) at the age of 86. Phil often subtracts a few years from his age, but even he would hesitate knocking off 42 of them. But then he’s not Helen Mirren. Who could possibly resist?
“House Full” signs outside the Gielgud Theatre proudly mark what a hot ticket this is, and will surely clutter the pavement for the length of the run. So, a real buzz in the stalls then, and not just from the mobiles that kept going off throughout the show; expect a rare and palpable anticipation topped off with a sprinkling of smugness just because you have bagged (or blagged) a ticket.
8 Prime Ministers are depicted in their weekly Tuesday or Wednesday evening meetings with the Queen at Buck House (majestically realised by Bob Crowley) and not even in chronological order. A lot of nippy costume and wig switches for Mirren; sometimes she’s cleverly transformed on stage. We counted 10 changes. Most impressive.
Despite occasional leaks, what goes on in the room stays in the room. In the unlikely event there are flies in the Palace one hopes they have the sense to settle on that room’s walls.
John Major (Paul Ritter) kicks off the PM hit parade. How the audience roared with laughter as he walked on. So far so Spitting Image. Ritter is hilariously awkward especially as they contrast their respective parents’ backgrounds, but he later returns for a scene where his greyness is replaced with a steely confidence.
Churchill (Robert Hardy), Eden (Michael Elwyn), Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne), Wilson (Richard McCabe), Brown (Nathaniel Parker), Cameron (Rufus Wright) and Sunny Jim Callaghan (David Peart) appear as we flit back and forth through the years. The later has a rather spurious but thankfully brief walk on as a ghost, but this was more than compensated by fleeting appearances of Cecil Beaton and live corgis. Live corgis! If the show had a hand The Audience’s audience would be eating out of it.
The fantasy imagines the meetings as a mix of confessional therapy sessions, political chat and small talk. The Commonwealth, Suez, faith, personal health issues, breaches of confidence, the Royal Yacht and Princess Diana are some of the many topics dipped into.
Fans of Tony Blair (are there any?) should take note, he does not appear; Morgan presumably feels he’s already written enough about him, but that doesn’t stop him getting in some crowd-pleasing digs. Perhaps the biggest insult is not selecting him to appear at all.
Early preview and all that, presumably lines are being rewritten at this stage, perhaps explaining why there was more fluffing than a porn movie shoot and also repeated prompts for one of the actors. Or if one was being generous, perhaps the mobile phones were distracting. They certainly were for us. Why wasn’t there a “turn off your phone” warning before it began?
The confrontational meeting with Thatcher is chillingly amusing. Gwynne does her voice and movement splendidly, though they should reconsider putting her in a vertically striped suit, which just emphasises that she looks too tall for the role. The wigs are spot on. One might assume Richard Mawbey’s hands are on the curling tongs, but no, it’s Peter Owen; there are moments, especially as the present day Queen, where Mirren looks uncannily like her.
A girl plays her as a child (whichever of Bebe Cave, Maya Gerber or Nell Williams it was she had the youthful high-pitched plumminess down to a tee) giving Mirren moments to change off stage, but she’s rarely off; there’s plenty of Mirren for your considerable bucks here; her development from young Queen with older PMs to experienced old Queen with younger PMs and back is so convincing it’s hard to take your eyes off her. And again it’s good to see a queen on stage who’s not just there for cheap laughs, although this one does have a delicious line in witty put downs. Who knew our Queen is in possession of such a nifty tongue?
Act 2 opens in Balmoral with Wilson putting up a good case that it’s really a “schloss” while HMQ serves him drinks and cigars. And perhaps we’re the only ones that didn’t know he possessed a photograpic memory before illness struck; it certainly leads to some amusing business when he asks the Queen to find him a book and she’s not sure if they even have one. McCabe’s brilliant portrayal of Wilson starts splendidly gauche in his opening scene but unexpectedly provides the most touching moments as a surprising bond develops between them.
You wouldn’t think Mirren needed great support - judging by recent photographs of her - but she’s surrounded by it here.
Daldry brings the different elements and time changes together so smoothly you can almost suspend disbelief and believe you’re there. Even if the meetings aren’t really anything like this you leave wishing that this is exactly how they might be.
Morgan hints at the shifting powers between the elected and the unelected heads and sympathetically genuflects to the Queen’s endurance, constancy and attempts to move with the times. The feeling comes across that Her Maj is trapped in a very gilded, albeit slightly tarnished cage.
As the cast come together for a curtain call tableau you could almost be in Madame Tussauds or Great Yarmouth’s House of Wax depending on which figure your eyes rest on.
But above all it’s a frequently hilarious and affectionately playful romp. Royalists have nothing to fear. Phil’s even considering granting Andrew a weekly audience.
Fat chance they’d be as entertaining as the ones depicted here.