Gielgud Theatre, London

Theatre review: The Audience - Bring on the dancing corgis

3.00

Yes, we are amused by Mirren's regal reprise – pity about Peter Morgan's script, though

Everyone needs a shoulder to cry on. Or is a stiffer upper lip what's required? When John Major starts blubbing, the Queen resorts to her patent-leather handbag, whisks out a hankie and flutters it in his direction – somewhere between a consoling gesture and a royal wave. He takes it gratefully and dries his eyes. Then, getting his etiquette in a twist, tucks it in his breast pocket.

Peter Morgan's new crowd-pulling and often entertaining play, The Audience – starring Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II – imagines what might have been said in the weekly meetings between the monarch and various prime ministers (from Churchill to Wilson to Cameron, although Blair is missing).

What's striking about the resultant dialogues, as directed by Stephen Daldry, is how magnanimously understanding The Audience is towards those in power – albeit stopping short of sycophancy. For sure, Major (a spot-on impersonation by Paul Ritter) is gently satirised. However, we glean that he's seriously wretched, too, in the wake of Black Wednesday. The stress of governing is a recurrent theme, the Queen expressing concern about several sleep-deprived PMs, including Michael Elwyn's pill-popping Anthony Eden and Nathaniel Parker's Gordon Brown.

In turn, the head of state has her own tear-jerking backstory. Morgan interweaves scenes in which Mirren converses – looking sad yet stalwart – with a child actress who represents Elizabeth's remembered adolescent self: an outdoorsy princess trapped, by her uncle's abdication, in the cold grandeur of Buckingham Palace. The backdrop resembles a magnificent mausoleum, with jet-black pillars.

As well as being classifiable as a spin-off from The King's Speech and the Morgan/Mirren film The Queen, The Audience is in line with a long tradition of stage dramas depicting the trials of sovereignty – not least Shakespeare's histories.

The big disappointment is the failure of this script to meld its biographical tidbits into credible dialogue. The protagonists' speeches are stashed with expositional facts and often seem improbable.

On the upside, we are amused. Behind closed doors, it appears that Her Majesty has a rapier wit, as well as some strong opinions, under the required air of neutrality. Mirren is uncannily like the real-life Elizabeth II, sitting with a slightly starched spine – her serenely folded hands betraying occasional twitches of royal irritation. Moreover, the actress transforms in a blink into the young queen, with dazzlingly quick wig and costume-changes and a higher-pitched, more nervous voice.

Edward Fox valiantly stands in as Churchill (replacing Robert Hardy at short notice), and Richard McCabe makes Wilson lovable, as well as impolite. That said, this soft-pedalling production starts to look sentimental, especially when the cameo roles extend to scampering corgis.

In Purple Heart (Gate Theatre, London ***), Carla (Amelia Lowdell) is sick of consoling gestures and neighbours poking their do-gooding noses into her private life. This is small-town America in the 1970s. She's a grieving Vietnam War widow with a drink problem and a kid who is worryingly keen on flame-throwers. This early play, from 2002, by Bruce Norris (of Clybourne Park fame) falls flat when Christopher Haydon's cast rattle off their lines like machine-gun fire, with no comic timing. However, this chamber production – played out in a claustrophobic, brown lounge – becomes increasingly tense and intriguingly weird. A wounded soldier (a spookily glazed and gaunt Trevor White) turns up on Carla's doorstep and quietly hangs around, ignoring her overbearing mother-in-law. A dark national allegory, perhaps.

Lastly, William Boyd, the novelist and screenwriter, has adjusted, intermeshed and dramatised a couple of short stories by Chekhov, "A Visit to Friends" and "My Life". The result is a two-tiered drama, Longing (Hampstead Theatre, London ***), centring on a pretty summer house on a country estate.

Iain Glen's Kolia, a romantically indecisive Moscow lawyer, is staying there, visiting friends from his youth. While they're trying to save the estate from bankruptcy, a love triangle forms. Meanwhile, working on the roof is William Postlethwaite's tousled Misail, idealistically roughing it as a labourer, but also betrothed to the nouveau-riche Dolzikhov's daughter. She has her eye on the property.

As unmarried, middle-aged Varia, Tamsin Greig is heartbreaking, with her unspoken yearning for Kolia cloaked in humour. And Glen's portrayal of Kolia's platonic myopia is exquisitely painful. Both are beautifully naturalistic, as is the setting: a sun-dappled glade, designed by Lizzie Clachan. Too bad the storylines feel only roughly hammered together and some among Nina Raine's cast are puzzlingly wooden, including John Sessions's lumbering Dolzikhov.

 

'The Audience' (0844 482 5130) to 15 Jun. 'Purple Heart' (020-7229 0706) to 6 Apr. 'Longing' (020-7722 9301) to 13 Apr

Critic's Choice

Brecht's A Life of Galileo is at the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon (to 30 Mar), with Ian McDiarmid on top form as the feisty, wily scientist pitted against religious fundamentalism. This House has transferred to the NT Olivier: a triumph (running to 15 May) for James Graham's sharp, droll depiction of Westminster politics in the fractious 1970s.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York