West End Premiere Production
Gielgud Theatre, London
Monday 15th April 2013
For the entire course of her over 60 year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has met on Tuesday afternoons for a 20 minute private audience with her Prime Minister, to catch her up on the political business of the week. This new play by Peter Morgan imagines an insight into these most private of meetings, exploring the monarch's relationship with some of the 12 ministers through select moments in political history.
Chopping back and forth through time, the scene changes are imaginatively and sometimes miraculously achieved, with the monarch moving from youth to old age in a matter of moments, at times with full costume and wig changes made directly on stage. Morgan's writing makes many assumptions about private opinions known only to her Majesty, but the relationships shown with each of the ministers are extremely believable, and the characterisations of all of these very public figures are exceptional across the board.
Helen Mirren's tried and tested ability to look more like the Queen than the Queen is achieved once again in a performance so believable it makes one want to curtsy. She is not alone however in delivering a fantastic depiction of a historic British character. As Paul Ritter's unassuming John Major states that he wanted only to be ordinary at the play's opening, he is cut down with the Queen's acerbic question "In what way do you feel you have failed in that ambition?". Ritter's performance is far from ordinary however, as he embodies the grey Tory ideally. He develops, if not affection, certainly a mutual understanding with the monarch, especially in his scene discussing the breakdown of her eldest son's marriage to Princess Diana. We never meet Tony Blair, although he is much mentioned by both Nathaniel Parker's Gordon Brown, touching as he opens up about his depression to the wise and experienced elderly Queen, and Rufus Wright's David Cameron, cleverly rewritten to incorporate up to the moment developments - even Thatcher's funeral, taking place only two days after this performance. Edward Fox's slightly patronising Churchill leads a very young Queen toward the traditions set by her father, giving her the opportunity lay down her own rules quite steadfastly, although being talked down in her wish to take her new husband's name. Haydn Gwynne has the unenviable job of performing her excellent depiction of Margaret Thatcher, shown here as resolute and hard, putting fear even into the staff and chief resident of Buckingham Palace. It is however Richard McCabe's Harold Wilson who charms both the sell-out audience and unexpectedly the Queen herself, as this proud, working class, Labour politician becomes a clear favourite of her Majesty. The visit to Balmoral is particularly well imagined, and the scene of his final visit to the Palace to explain the decline of his mental health brought an unanticipated tear to the eye.
An absorbing, entertaining play, full of humour as well as moments of real feeling, performed and directed with exceptional skill. Couldn't ask for more.