BWW Review: THE AUDIENCE, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
As the United Kingdom waits to see who will be the next prime minister, a production focusing on the relationship between PM and the Queen could not be more perfectly timed.
Peter Morgan, the writer behind The Crown and The Queen, has brought the intimate weekly meetings between head of state and head of government to life in The Audience, his new creation for Nuffield Southampton Theatres.
Directed by Samuel Hodges and designed by Rosanna Vize, The Audience spans Queen Elizabeth II's entire reign, exploring her relationships with some of the thirteen prime ministers who have graced, and disgraced, the steps of 10 Downing Street.
We are invited into the Queen's world, privy to the private and often personal conversations she has had with some of the most infamous names and faces in politics. Churchill, Eden, Wilson, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, and Cameron are all present and correct (not to mention a fleeting appearance from Mrs May herself).
The decades covered offer us the opportunity to observe the Queen as she grows from fledgling monarch to revered ruler. We see her at her very first meeting as Queen with Winston Churchill, nervous and unsure, and at her last audience with Cameron, wise and somewhat weary.
For such an expansive story, the cast is small, with one actor - Paul Kemp - playing the role of all of the male prime ministers. This is not only greatly entertaining (it is a joy watching Kemp skillfully embody the iconic tell-tale traits of each PM) but symbolic. Each leader, while different in era, age, party or background, is eventually interchangeable.
As mentioned, Kemp's portrayal of the male prime ministers is excellent. He manages the ideal balance between impressions and interpretations. A conversation between the Queen and Wilson towards the end of the production is particularly moving, and is the perfect demonstration of how The Audience offers an insight into the people behind the titles.
Faye Castelow is perfectly cast as Queen Elizabeth II. Being on stage permanently throughout the performance is no mean feat, but she is poised, elegant and - for want of a more obvious word - regal. She has remarkable stage presence.
Lizzie Hopley's Margaret Thatcher is impressive, too. Her confrontational scene with the Queen is volatile and certainly lives up to expectation.
Sharon Singh keeps the story flowing as the Equerry, adding humour here and there and keeping everyone in check. Fay Burwell as Young Elizabeth Windsor is also polished, and her scenes with her 'older self', which explore Elizabeth's lost youth, are touching.
The set and staging for The Audience is simple and extremely effective. Each stage in Elizabeth's life is brought in on a conveyer belt. This clever design element represents the timelessness of politics and the monarchy. It also adds frantic pace to the showdown between the Queen and Thatcher.
Each conversation is held in a space that is basic and almost unchanging, too. It tranforms from cosy living room to figurative boxing ring. At times it feels as if we are alone in a room with two of the most powerful people in the country.
The transition between scenes is smooth. The Queen's humanness and vulnerability is revealed as she is exposed in her undergarments and helped into her next outfit, and era, by the Equerry.
Each of these changes is performed with a subtle dance which, though skillfull, seem a little unecessary (though it does subtly suggest the concept of the Queen's appearance as a performance in itself). With this production, it could be a case of the simpler, the better.
There are a number of small touches such as this which are lovely, but don't always add a huge amount to the overall quality of the show. The excellent performances and set design are strong enough to be left to speak for themselves.
Don't let the idea of a political play fool you into thinking that you're in for a serious night. The Audience offers moments of wit and humour which pepper captivated silence with laughter. You don't have to be an expert in history or politics to be able to enjoy this production, either. For those who are unfamiliar with each prime minister's legacy, it is both an education and a prompt to discover more.
The Audience offers a view of the Queen beyond the pomp and circumstance. It is an intimate, realistic imagining of the conversations that often dictate the direction of our country. It goes without saying that fans of The Crown will be enchanted by this production.
Spend your evening up close and personal with the country's leaders, past and present: The Audience is another jewel in Nuffield Southampton Theatres' glittering crown.
Photo credit: The Other Richard