There couldn’t have been a more fitting time to revive The Audience than the week of the general election. The play by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) starring Kristin Scott Thomas, gives us an audience with the Queen on Tuesday evenings – the very same evenings that the Prime Minister joins her to discuss the week’s events. From Churchill to Cameron, we’re taken on a fragmented journey, revisiting their rather entertaining meetings.
Directed by Stephen Baldry, the play feels like an homage to the Queen’s long reign; showcasing her wit and intelligence rather than making big political statements. This might be due to the fact that the Queen’s role within this secret room was to support the Prime Minister’s decisions, whatever they may be. And while she poses some serious questions, and shows obvious disapproval of some matters, the room isn’t so much a place to exercise her political power, as a place for the PMs to have a rant.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays a calm, sharp Elizabeth, bringing to life her intelligence and wit with lightning-quick remarks that put the Prime Ministers to shame. A palace courtier, Tommy Lascelles, once remarked on her audience with Churchill, “…but it was more often than not, punctuated by peals of laughter, and Winston generally came out wiping his eyes.” The humour doesn’t stop at Churchill, and the Queen’s retorts will have you chuckling all the way through.
One of the Queen’s first encounters takes us back to her very first audience with Churchill in 1952. Although she is new to the game, she very quickly demonstrates she wants the mettings run her way and turns the situation around from Churchill trying to take over and tell her what to do, to owning the meeting herself. He is fast to decide that the suceeding Prime Ministers will ‘fall under her spell’ in this private room.
The room itself, designed by Bob Crowley, is a grand vision on the stage. A vast corridor of tall ceilings, gilded with gold stretch back into the vast magnitude of Buckingham Palace. A sparkling chandelier sits above two plush yellow chairs (re-upholstered by Queen Victoria and kept that way for tradition).
Each Prime Minister is a spitting image of the ones we know so well. Supported hugely by their diligent coiffeur, Sarah Spears. Gordon Brown (Gordon Kennedy) is a hilariously raging angry Scot, Cameron (Mark Dexter) is like a cheeky schoolboy, trying to take pictures of the Queen when she falls asleep during his banal conversation over the Euro crisis. Thatcher (Sylvestra Le Touzel) is a mini whirlwind, with a military like stage presence.
And while much of the play sees the PMs letting off a little steam, there are a couple of moments of more serious drama. Elizabeth has a steely confrontation with Thatcher over a press release that showed the Queen to be unsupportive of her policies – deeming them ‘destructive’. Another uncomfortable moment is with John major, whose close relationship with Diana led to a discussion about the monarchy being outdated.
Amidst a lot of obvious disdain, we discover that the queen has an unexpected liking for one particular Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (Nicholas Woodeson). Her admiration for him develops with their ‘fun’ audiences and their holiday together at Balmoral, where he demonstrates his photographic memory by memorising a page of a book, much to Elizabeth’s amazement. Her affection for Wilson leads to the only real bit of sadness in the play – where he starts losing his memory, and she realises that she has lost a friend.
While the majority of the play is centred around The Audience Room, there are other, more glamorous punctuations. Kristin Scott Thomas is blinding in her coronation dress, and inspiring in her Commonwealth radio speech as a 14-year-old. We also get to see her fabulous encounter with the iconic photographer, Cecil Beaton.
If you like light-hearted political satire, real life corgis and have deemed yourself a bit of a monarchist, you’ll probably very much enjoy being a part of The Audience.
The Audience runs until 25th July 2015 at the Apollo Theatre, London. For more information and tickets, visit the website.