Printable CopyTHE AUDIENCE
Therry Theatre
The Arts Theatre
Until 13 Nov 2021

Review by John Wells

Every Tuesday evening, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second sits down with her Prime Minister to discuss the business of the week past and the week to come. The weekly “audiences” are private, unrecorded conversations between the Monarch and the head of her government.

Peter Morgan’s 2013 play “The Audience” is a non-linear dramatisation of nearly sixty years of audiences, from a cantankerous, condescending Churchill to a glib David Cameron. Because nothing is actually known about these meetings, Morgan can give free reign to his imagination. The script is full of charm and cleverness, with some wonderfully sharp quips from Her Majesty. In its best moments, “The Audience” finds arresting emotional insight, astute historical reflection (with nice flashes of irony) and theatrical flourish.

The text, however, fails to create any real dramatic tension to drive the action of the play. While the Queen can “advise and warn” her Prime Ministers, she is constitutionally bound not to interfere with the business of government. This means the theatrical rendering of the audiences has little conflict. The episodes zip around in time, but there is no sense of accumulating drama. To create interest, Morgan spices up some of the meetings with political intrigue, bantering friendship and, in the Thatcher v Queen show-down, a stream of outraged bile. Much of this strains credulity. Would the Queen speak to openly about her cousins’ mental health struggles, or champion black rights in South Africa, or stoutly cross-examine Anthony Eden on British duplicity during the Suez crisis? Would John Major mention auto erotic suicide? Would Margaret Thatcher sail in and bully the Queen with angry bombast? And would Harold Wilson tease Her Majesty about her German ancestry?

Despite the deficiencies of the script, this is a strong and entertaining amateur production.

Director Ben Todd has succeeded in giving brightness and pace to an essentially static piece. Despite most of the action involving two people sitting in chairs, there is real vibrancy and momentum in this production. Todd has clearly worked closely with his actors in bringing detail and nuance to the performances - not easy to do as some of the Prime Ministers are written superficially.

The strong cast is led by Rebecca Kemp as Queen Elizabeth. She gives a well-modulated, emotionally precise performance, full of concentration and skill. Her accent never falters and her combination of strength, gentle authority and ordinariness works extremely well. She moves from a hesitant young Queen to a wise confidante with ease. (Kemp is assisted by a small battalion of dressers: she frequently glides stage-left where she is surrounded by black-clad gang who change her frock and attach a new wig – a bit like a Royal Formula One pit-stop.)

The cast of PMs is uniformly excellent, with some stand-out performances: Paul Briske plays the Labour PM Harold Wilson as a folksy, passionate, avuncular co-conspirator. It is a beautifully engaging and entertaining portrayal, and his scenes with Kemp are real highlights of this show. Brad Martin (John Major) is convincing as a decent man thrust into an unwelcome position. Frank Cwiertniak’s wonderfully versatile acting reveals both a nervy and paranoid Gordon Brown and a politically weak Eden with powerful effect. Natasha Scholey (Margaret Thatcher) is like a galleon in full sail: she descends on the poor Queen with unassailable fury, berating her for Palace leaks. While this episode suffers from a hearty sense of implausibility, Scholey is imperiously aggressive and very funny.

The strong production is augmented by excellent costuming, sensitive video and still projections, and two amazingly well-behaved corgis.