Sunday, July 14

The Audience – Altrincham Garrick Playhouse

Back in 2013, well before ‘The Crown’ became a Netflix sensation, Peter Morgan wrote ‘The Audience’. This reimagining of the weekly meetings that take place between the monarch and her first twelve Prime ministers was a smash hit in both the West End and on Broadway, garnering Olivier and Tony awards for Helen Mirren in her role as Elizabeth II. Altrincham Garrick Playhouse has now taken up the challenge of producing this deep dive into post war British history, resulting in a sumptuous and informative production sprinkled with excellent performances.

The set (Barry Purves) could not be simpler; two chairs on a bare stage – which Equerry (Howard Yaffe) informs us may or may not be Hepplewhite – allow Queen Elizabeth (Ros Greenwood) and her various Prime Ministers to illustrate political and social change over six decades. However, if the set was purposefully functional then it was more than compensated by the costume, Director and Costume Designer Mike Shaw raiding the extensive dressing up box of the Altrincham Garrick costume department to produce the spectacle of colour and pageantry we have come to expect from this theatre; ermine and bright silks abound throughout in a feast for the eyes.

It is fascinating to watch this earlier work and trace the genesis and development of ‘The Crown’ from it. We jump around the timeline – this is no plodding linear narrative – the Queen muses on events that have shaped her personality and reign over the period, discussing her changing role with a younger version of herself (a superbly assured performance from 12 year old Eleanor Zuk), as well as the men (and one woman) who helped shape the history of our nation. Morgan has a metaphorical style of writing, utilising it to illustrate character and events in both this play and the subsequent series in a way that, although often lacking subtlety on screen, undoubtedly works as a theatrical device. The Queen spars with John Major (Steven Finney) over the decline of HMS Britannia, echoing her own diminished place in the world; Eden (Jonathan Black) lies over Suez with clear echoes of Blair and the Iraq war half a century later; Thatcher (Annabel Fox) scoffs at Commonwealth heads as ‘unelected leaders in eccentric tribal costumes’ whilst the Queen stands in full Norman Hartnell regalia. As a self-confessed political geek, this was manna from heaven for me, I hope the opening night audience enjoyed this funny and clever exposition as much as I did.

Greenwood is excellent as Queen Elizabeth, onstage throughout and convincing as both the younger naive Elizabeth in awe of Churchill (Nick Sample) as much as the elderly monarch dispatching advice to the callow Cameron (Hector Macduff) sixty years later. The writing demonstrates the playful side of the monarch, most notably in her dealings with Wilson and Major and it is during these scenes that the production really finds its rhythm. Finney finds warmth and strength as Major, a Prime Minister caricatured as weak in popular memory, whilst Mark Jephcott stole all his scenes as Harold Wilson, initially chippy and insecure before blossoming into the sovereigns favourite PM. His realisation and admission of the onset Alzheimer’s disease was beautifully rendered and gave depth and heart to the character and a beautiful conclusion to the piece.

One of Wilson’s most famous quotes is that ‘a week is a long time in politics’ and the decade since this play was written now seems like an eternity. Subsequent events have conspired to overtake it; Brexit, the pandemic, war in Ukraine and four Prime Ministers, all now make this feel like a superior period drama rather than a commentary on our current politics. Most poignantly, the death of Queen Elizabeth herself in 2022 at the age of 96 allows us look at the play in a new light, recognising her contribution whilst pondering the future of the institution of monarchy in a modern democratic society.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 20th May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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