For sixty years, Elizabeth II has met each of her Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace - a meeting like no other in British public life; it is in private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said, not even to their spouse. The Audience breaks this contract of silence and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen.
From young woman to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.
HM The Queen – Helen Mirren
Anthony Eden – Michael Elwyn
Margaret Thatcher – Haydn Gwynne
Harold Wilson – Richard McCabe
Gordon Brown – Nathaniel Parker
John Major – Paul Ritter
David Cameron – Rufus Wright
Winston Churchill – Edward Fox
James Callaghan/Private Secretary – David Peart
Equerry – Geoffrey Beevers
Princess Elizabeth – Nell Williams
Written by Peter Morgan
Director – Stephen Daldry
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting – Rich Fisher
I sometimes worry about Him Indoors. Firstly, this show completely failed to register on his radar. Given that he is often to be found crouching over the PC like some kind of demented puma at 0859hrs waiting for the booking season for something obscure to open at 0900hrs, this is in itself a matter for some concern (although when this was brought up in conversation, the story subtly changed to “I saw it mentioned and didn’t think it would be the kind of thing you would be interested in” Personally I think this is a poor attempt at trying to get out of not having realised it was opening. He always was a terribly poor liar). Secondly is that he seemed to think that Mary Hopkins was in this. I think he is losing his mind. It comes to us all, some earlier than others.
Every time the show has been mentioned in the media over the last couple of months, I have made vaguely distressed whimpering noises, which markedly increased in volume and frequency when I found out that, due to Ms Mirren’s contractual obligations elsewhere, The Audience would be closing shortly. So it was with considerable relief on both parts that he managed to get tickets for a filmed relay of this into Greenwich Picturehouse. Not live, unfortunately, because the show has already finished its run. But still a performance, nonetheless; hey, sometimes we have to take what we can get.
So, it was on a hot, sticky and very sultry lunchtime that we headed off on the bus down to Greenwich, humming “Those were the days, my friend”, and finding that we were the youngest people in the auditorium by a long shot. Well, I was, anyway. I wasn’t best pleased to find that we were in the front row; granted there was space for me to stick my still poorly old foot out (apparently I will never dance Giselle again, according to my GP), but it did mean that we were so close I could see that some of the actors hadn’t plucked their nose hair recently and I ended up with a major crick in my neck). One of the disadvantages of watching a filmed performance is that you have to look at what the director wants you to look at; I would have preferred it if there had been a fixed camera somewhere offering a complete view of the entire stage (so you could watch the show from the point of view of an audience member in the stalls). Needless to say Him Indoors disagrees; he does this now and then but I try to ignore him as best I can. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad had we not been so close to the screen. It can be quite disconcerting looking up the Queen’s nose. I couldn’t see Mary Hopkins though, however hard I tried.
It cannot be denied that Dame Helen gives a tour de force performance as HM. After a six-month run of this eight times a week, the poor cow must be exhausted as, apart from a couple of short exits for costume changes, she is on stage for the entire 2 ½ hours. Even so, I did notice a couple of slightly fudged lines. For obvious reasons, she is somewhat less convincing as Queenie in the very early days of her reign – even an experienced actress like her cannot make a mature voice sound young. As Queenie from the 1960’s onwards, however, the performance is astonishing, helped (of course) in part by remarkable wigs and costumes. From a distance, it would be incredibly difficult to tell the Dame and the Queen apart – although the Dame has a bit of a conk on her which is obvious in profile. Every gesture, every facial expression, every posture – its truly uncanny.
Most of The Audience is played strictly for laughs, and I thought it would have been better had it been less funny. The Prime Ministers are, almost without exception, played as pantomime caricatures (mostly villains). Richard McCabe plays Harold Wilson as a genial, bumbling fool and Hayden Gwynne’s performance as Mrs. Thatcher and Paul Ritter’s as John Major have both seemingly been lifted straight from Spitting Image. Gwynne’s is a star turn – a cross between Cruella de Vil and Iago. I was somewhat shocked at the sheer lack of physical resemblance depicted by some performers; Nathaniel Parker doesn’t really look very much like Gordon Brown at all, and Rufus Wright bears no more than a tangential resemblance to David Cameron (he’s got the hand gestures right, but looks too sharp-angled and ferret-like; Mr. Cameron has got slightly pudgy-faced over the last six months). Robert Hardy was to have played Winston Churchill but was taken ill during rehearsals so Edward Fox can be forgiven for not looking very much like him. David Peart looks even less like James Callaghan, but is only on for a couple of minutes or so and does us all the favour of announcing that he is James Callagham, so no worries there.
Again, a full company bow with a solo bow from the star. I do so hate all this “communist bowing” as Him Indoors calls it – I fully believe that every member of the cast deserves their own bow and their own applause. I was slightly shocked that Dame Helen didn’t take her bow in character – it was all that was needed to make the illusion complete (perhaps apart from the sudden appearance of Mary Hopkins).
What the critics said: