THEATRE / Queen and country: Paul Taylor Two Weeks with the Queen at the National, London

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The Independent Culture
It stands to reason that the Queen would have the best doctor in the world, reckons podgy 10-year-old Alastair (Sean McKenzie). Given that you could never ask her to take her clobber off, the royal physician would have to be able to make brilliant guesses as to what was wrong. It's a subject that's of pressing importance to Alastair's 12-year-old Australian cousin, Colin (Tamblyn Lord). Sent to stay in Pommie land because his younger brother is dying of cancer, he determinedly refuses to believe a cure can't be found and embarks on schemes to waylay the Queen so that he can enlist her help. The most sympathetic adult he encounters on his mission turns out, though, to be not a Windsor but a down-to-earth, gay Welshman, Ted (Peter Forbes), whose partner is dying of Aids.

Skilfully adapted by Mary Morris from the novel by Morris Gleitzman, Two Weeks with the Queen pulls off the admirable trick of being a quite delightful coming-to-terms-with- death play. It leavens its serious message with a lot of comic mischief, and the mixed moods of Alan Ayckbourn's excellent production at the Cottesloe inventively get across the point that even when we're in the midst of death, life carries on around in all its incorrigible ridiculousness. It's hard, as more and more of us are finding out, to prepare children when grown-ups they have come to love develop Aids. A trip to this would certainly help discussion.

The two boys are splendidly played by young adults. Lord shows you the touchingly driven optimism as well as the winning ocker intrepidity of Colin. His open personality is hilariously counterpointed by that of McKenzie's Alastair, who is a jellied mass of psychosomatic symptoms. Greeting his cousin's daredevil schemes like someone who is torn between a complete nervous breakdown and pop-eyed admiration, he is the kind of fussed-over child who needs to stand up to his parents. He learns how to do this through Colin, just as Colin realises that he must insist on going back to Australia and his brother's bedside, through the sad experience of the man dying of Aids whose estranged parents refuse to visit him.

The play would be better if Colin were shown needing to overcome just a little unthinking prejudice or resistance before becoming the helpful soulmate of the gay couple, though the slight sentimentality at this point is at least well meant. As well as tutoring young hearts, Ayckbourn's in-the-round production is expert at tickling young fancies. The deceptively simple design consists of ingenious boxes that drolly establish place via a mind- boggling number of flipped-over flaps on which are stuck everything from Buck-House pigeons to auntie's knick-knacks. The fine cast pull off some pointed doubling and communicate in eloquently whacky body language in routines like the very funny mime of a long-haul flight. From the glossary of Aussie slang in the programme, I'd select 'Onya]' meaning 'Well done] Nice work]'.

(Photograph omitted)

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