Thursday, 12 April 2012

The King's Speech - Wyndhams Theatre, Thursday 12th April 2012

I’m sure you saw the film.
Charles, Duke of York (afterwards King George VI) – Charles Edwards
Lionel Logue – Jonathan Hyde
Elizabeth, Duchess of York (afterwards Queen Elizabeth) – Emma Fielding
King George V – Joss Ackland
Winston Churchill – Ian McNeice
Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury – Michael Feast
Myrtle Logue – Charlotte Randle
Stanley Baldwin – David Killick
Edward, Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward VIII) – Daniel Betts
Wallis Simpson – Lisa Baird

Creative Team:
Written by: David Seidler
Director: Adrian Noble
Designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Mic Pool

Well, you lucky people – three reviews in the space of week. What larks!

This was an unexpected treat for a rainy afternoon (yah boo sucks to Thames Water and their hosepipe ban!). Him Indoors, with his well-known aversion to the cinematographic arts (“Film is a dead art”) had to be prodded gently to go and see the film when it was released, particularly when he found out that Helena Bonham Carter was in it, and he’s no great fan of Colin Firth either, although when I told him that Ramona Marquez (better known as the little girl from Outnumbered) was playing the young Princess Elizabeth he practically dribbled with anticipation. So when I quietly suggested going to see the play the film was based on, I met a good deal of resistance along the lines of “What do you want to go and see that rubbish again for?” and it is a mark of my powers of persuasive persistence (oft referred to by Him Indoors as “nagging”) that he eventually gave way. Ironically, it seems that he really enjoyed the play, although I suspect the fact that we got considerably reduced-price matinee tickets via a well-known discount website helped quite a lot. He does so love a bargain, bless him. Also the fact that we were “upgraded” to better seats as well because the house was a little thin, so double bubble.

Its difficult to see why Hollywood picked this play up because, on the face of it, its not a particularly earth-shattering script; there are no aliens, no car chases and no roles for overpaid A-listers with buff pecs and perfect teeth. It’s a fairly simple story about the relationship between a man with a speech impediment and his therapist, definitely domestic in its scope. The fact that the former is a member of the Royal Family is almost a side issue, except of course that things start to come to a head when the heir to the throne falls under the spell of an American divorcee called Wallis Simpson. The play is able to delve deep into the personal relationship between “Bertie” and Lionel Logue, concentrating less on the mechanics of the “cure” than the film, and also has time to explore the relationship between Logue and his wife Myrtle, a relationship that was only hinted at on screen. There is also a darned sight more about the chilling relationship between Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson and Hitler than Hollywood had the guts to portray. What falls by the wayside in the play are many of the big “set piece scenes” and consequently things move at a fair clip for the first half hour or so – no sooner have scenes begun than they are over – necessitating some fairly brisk scene changes and lots of quick entrances and exits by the cast to the point where I began to think “I wish they would slow down, I haven’t finished with the scene before last yet and I’m starting to get the theatrical equivalent of indigestion”. But the pace settles once the “set up” is over, George V snuffs it and the shit starts hitting the fan. Poor Joss Ackland gets one big scene and then has to spend the rest of the play in the green room picking his nose, leafing through The Stage and rummaging through other people’s bags.

It sounds odd to say that, once the play slow down, the pace is kept up nicely – but what would be multiple, tedious changes of scene are handled nicely with the use of a double revolve (central disc and external ring), bringing furniture and cast on and off again with split-second timing (pity the poor Stage Manager who must spend all their time in the wings being the theatrical equivalent of a removal man). The use of back projection onto an enormous picture frame brings the crowds at Wembley Stadium, George V[‘s funeral and the Nuremburg Rallies onto the stage without fuss and the frame doubles as a scrim through which other characters and scenes can be glanced.

Performances were generally excellent – any pity for Charles Edwards having to wrestle with the shade of Colin Firth is misplaced because the former shows that he is more than capable, thank you very much. Joss Ackland gives all the young whippersnappers a masterclass in how to sit more or less motionless behind a desk in one short scene and exert a personal magnetism that practically billows over the footlights and makes everyone else on stage completely disappear for five minutes. Daniel Betts handles the small role of Edward VIII with aplomb, creating a smarmy, boo-hiss villain that wouldn’t look out of place in panto. Jonathan Hyde’s Logue is nicely underplayed and Ian McNeice manages to resist hamming up Churchill into caricature, displaying the man’s deft touch for humour and sparks of caustic wit. Michael Feast, however, descends into oleaginous, hand-wringing campery, making his Archbishop of Canterbury a nauseously effete blend of Obadiah Slope, Uriah Heap and Robert Runcie, and Emma Fielding has none of the Queen Mum’s elegance, poise or class. In fact, much as it pains me to say it, Helena Bonham Carter’s performance in the film beat Fielding’s portrayal hands down.

Yes, there is blatant emotional manipulation in this production. The interpolation of deliberately syrupy “film music” was commented on afterwards by Him Indoors, although I have to admit that personally I never noticed most of it. The swelling echoes of “Nimrod” as background to the emotional climax of the play is, perhaps, a little calculated. But it’s a rare English heart that won’t rise into the throat as Good King George, having fought both the Evil King Edward and The Awful Stammer, steps towards the microphone for his famous speech on the eve of war. For indeed “with God’s help, we will prevail”.

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