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Review: The Audience, Gielgud Theatre, London

Stephen Daldry's production sees Helen Mirren brilliantly reprise her Oscar-winning role as Queen to meet each British Prime Minister from Churchill to Cameron

“Prime Minister, everything you say in this room stays between us,” the Queen reassures John Major before he shamefacedly reveals his “dubious distinction”, as a Downing Street incumbent, of having only three O-levels and his wretchedness at having hurt his parents by his academic failures.

Helen Mirren, brilliantly reprising her Oscar-winning role, responds with a firm, perfectly-timed briskness: “Well, I have no O-levels at all. (Pause.) What fine hands the country is in.”

Hugely enjoyable and cumulatively very affecting, this new play by Peter Morgan (author of The Queen) unfolds as a series of speculative public peeks into that most private of customs: the weekly confidential meetings between the monarch and the twelve Prime Ministers (stretching from Churchill to Cameron) who have served over the course of her sixty-one year reign. 

The resulting vignettes are of variable quality but they add up to considerably more here than the sum of their parts. This is thanks to the thematically piercing idea of presenting the encounters non-chronologically – a format which is expressed with a haunting, magical malleability by Stephen Daldry's superlative (and beautifully designed) production.  And the 67 year old Mirren rises to the daunting technical challenge with a quite uncannily fluid lightness of touch as she shifts back and forth on an age-spectrum of six decades. 

At one end, in mourning black and with a tight, high-pitched plumminess of voice, she's the twenty-six year old neophyte, already angling to secure her interests as a wife and mother against the paternalist and patronising solicitude of Churchill (Edward Fox – pluckily replacing, at short notice, the injured Robert Hardy). At the other, she's an octogenarian, nodding off during a session with the bland Cameron. 

Jokes are still being written in – there's a good gag about the Pope (not the selfless “lifer” that she is, we infer, in terms of dedication to lonely, divinely ordained duty). And the words of an Equerry – “If it's one thing her Majesty really loathes, it's being ill” – ring out now with a peculiar clangour, given the paradox that this show has opened in a week when, abnormally, illness has forced the Queen to be briefly hospitalised and cancel a trip to Rome and several other engagements.

Philip Larkin wrote this Silver Jubilee tribute to the monarch: “In times when nothing stood/but worsened, or grew strange/there was one constant good/she did not change”. But the excellence of the to-and-fro temporal structure of this play signals, with a sharp poignancy, that while the Queen has remained a fixed point (a symbol of continuity, above party politics), she has also had to adapt as a human being to the vicissitudes of life (including her developing conception of the “unlived life”). Watching Mirren convey, with astonishing skill, the Queen's fluctuating freight of experience (she's hardly offstage and some of the costume/wig changes are done in plain view)  brings this home with all the might of metaphor.  

Not everything works. The encounter with Mrs Thatcher, enraged by the alleged unconstitutional briefings to the Sunday Times, is marred by the fact that Haydn Gwynne is too tall to be an embarrassing competitor in the icon stakes, and the script requires her to treat the Queen too baldly to her Greatest Hits (no such thing as society/Good Samaritan etc). Equally, there are aspects that you know have palpable designs on you that are so well-handled that you willingly acquiesce. Richard McCabe is superb as Harold Wilson in three encounters (one at Balmoral) which touchingly dramatise the couple's soft spot for each other – the lefty closet-monarchist hits it off with the monarchical closet-lefty (Wilson is a sort of wish-fulfilling audience-surrogate in this respect).  

The flu-fomented flare-up at the proposed de-commissioning the royal yacht, Britannia; the almost forensic flaying of Sir Anthony Eden over the disgraceful collusions and cover-ups of Suez – it would be fascinating to compare Morgan's version of these flash-points with some notional transcript of the original.

The monarch's periodic conversations with her rebellious eleven-year-old self (who is already registering the cost of her hereditary destiny) is an index of how this play is not nearly as double-edged as The Queen. But the non-linear device is acute about how, in so long a reign, events become wisdom-conferring templates of each other and Mirren's tartly humorous and profoundly human portrayal of a woman who is, by nature and nurture, about as touchy-feely as she is Roman Catholic although required to be, by turns, sounding-board, confessor and therapist, is magnificent. She makes The Audience a right-royal great night out.

To 15 June; 0844 482 5130