Clive Hirschhorn reviews The Audience starring Helen Mirren at the Gielgud Theatre in London.

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Helen Mirren in The Audience

Clearly adopting the maxim ‘if at first you succeed, try again’, Helen Mirren and playwright Peter Morgan return to the subject matter of their triumphant Oscar-winning hit, The Queen, in a sketchy albeit highly entertaining new play, The Audience.

Covering the 61 years Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne, the play’s clever conceit is to eavesdrop on HRHs weekly Tuesday evening meetings with whatever prime minister happens to be in power.

Six decades of monarchy have put the Queen in weekly contact with no fewer than 12 PMs – two more than the long-reigning Victoria – and Morgan makes us privy to what might have been said by eight of those 12 PMs behind closed doors. I say ‘might’ because as everyone must know, those weekly consultations remain private. No minutes have ever been taken and regardless of the trivialities that may have been discussed, utter secrecy remains the keynote.

Given that Her Majesty, as a constitutional monarch, has no authority to influence party policy – her role being merely to listen and, should she choose, to offer advice that may or may not be taken – Morgan’s task was to invent a series of discussions based on received knowledge of the PMs in question.

It’s quite an ‘ask’ and he’s only partially successful in pulling it off. His portrayal of Harold Wilson as a scruffy, somewhat impertinent in-your-face lefty during his false note as did John Major’s self-effacement and low-opinion of his abilities. On one occasion we see him in tears, on another he is embarrassing the queen by questioning the usefulness of the monarchy in general and the royal family’s vast expenditure in particular.

Though serious topics are addressed – such as Anthony Eden’s duplicitous reasons for Britain’s invasion of Suez in 1956 and Margaret Thatcher’s angry insistence that there will be no sanctions against South Africa during that country’s apartheid regime – the play is at its most entertaining when it comes to gossip and personal revelations. The scenes in which the older Elizabeth is in conversation with her much younger self – a child already aware of the future demands and sacrifices she will one day have to make – are genuinely moving, while a wet weekend Harold Wilson shares with the Queen one summer at Balmoral is a delight, showing HRH and the PM’s genuine appreciation and enjoyment of one another.

Towards the end of the play the Queen is asked whom she considers the favourite of what she calls her ‘dirty dozen’. She refuses to say, of course, but Morgan leaves you in no doubt on whom that honour would be bestowed.

There is no question that, for all its shortcomings as a fully-realised play, The Audience is a walloping crowd-pleaser and a superb vehicle for its star Helen Mirren, who gives an appropriately magisterial performance. Her frequent changes of costumes and wigs undoubtedly play their part in this panoramic overview of Elizabeth’s rise from her first tentative meeting with a somewhat doddery albeit patronising Winston Churchill to her octogenarian maturity in dealing with David Cameron who, briefly, sends her to sleep. But they’re just a visual aid.

The real strength in Mirren’s performance comes from within. A look, a subtle gesture, a raised eyebrow, a calculated pause, the inflexion of certain words. It’s the little things she uses so tellingly to build a larger picture of the woman she is portraying. She has created very first encounter with HRH struck a the impossible: a believable portrait of a monarch known for guarding her privacy. After just under two and a half hours in her company you really feel you know and understand this extraordinary woman. And that’s no mean achievement.

Though there are moments – especially in the play’s first half when Morgan’s characterisations of the 8 PMs he has chosen (but not, interestingly, Tony Blair, about whom, I suppose, it could be argued, he has written more than his fair share) is guilty of some caricatural behaviour redolent of TV’s Spitting Image, an excellent supporting cast bring them enjoyably to life. Particularly effective are Nathaniel Parker as an insensitive Gordon Brown, Paul Ritter as a vulnerable John Major, Rufus Wright as a confident, manfully-striding David Cameron, Michael Elwyn as a manipulative Anthony Eden and Richard McCabe, crowd-pleasing if somewhat buffoonish as Harold Wilson.

Edward Fox is miscast but does gamefully as an 11th-hour replacement for Robert Hardy as Churchill, while Haydn Gwynne has the vocal authority for Margaret Thatcher but is physically wrong.

Stephen Daldry expertly directs a sumptuous, well-designed (by Bob Crowley) production that will take the town. If you haven’t already got tickets, be prepared for returns only.

CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

Reprinted by kind permission of This Is London