The first thing that has to be said is this is a hugely enjoyable evening out. It satisfies almost every theatrical craving: some good acting, an immaculate star performance in Dame Helen Mirren’s generous and affectionate impersonation of HMQ, lovely lighting and furniture, colourful costumes, plenty of jokes, and value for money with top tickets at £59.
It’s only the morning after you begin to wonder how ‘good’ it actually was. The mass-genuflection of the broadsheet scribes in offering five star accolades smacks of obeisance not just to St Mirren but also the Queen herself. Do critics get OBEs? Mirren and Her Maj certainly share the same demographic: the home counties and visitors from the Middle West will lap this up as enthusiastically as Downton, and for anyone whose mum has a birthday between now and June, it’s a ‘must’ if you can get in – the Stalls are all but sold out for the duration.
In Mr Selfridge this week, the hirsute haberdasher held court for explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton who gave a slide lecture to the staff and a couple of rows of extras in starched collars. Whether this happened or not is immaterial, for the scenes are pure speculation of the sort much enjoyed by primetime ITV audiences. Such historical conjecture may not be sufficient for a West End play but Peter Morgan is on safe ground, since the weekly audiences between the monarch and Prime Minister are so permanently confidential he could have imagined anything at all from a Tory PM bursting into tears to the Queen doing a striptease. The second is almost true because Mirren accomplishes a dozen quick-changes including wigs and gowns, some of them onstage: she has all the Queen’s body language and mannerisms, and the tilt of an eyebrow or the turn of her head conveys so much so well that you don’t feel cheated of the movie close-ups.
This is because she’s undertaking not just a reprise of her role in the Stephen Frears film but, with immense subtlety and startling accuracy, portrays the Queen in seven or eight different stages of her reign: when she switches from the grandmotherly matriarch to the 25-year old girl in a wasp-waisted black dress, it really does inspire gasps of admiration.
The rest – and you do begin to think of them as ‘turns’ – edge progressively closer to Spitting Image. Morgan’s script has the comedic rhythms of a sitcom and both the the gags and the Queen’s ironic interjections do build up during the evening. Richard McCabe is a surefire audience favourite as Harold Wilson, although it’s doubtful he was quite as cuddly as McCabe makes him, nor that Anthony Eden was such a dyspeptic and charmless bully, but Paul Ritter sets the tone with a nicely vulnerable and tired John Major. Haydn Gwynne’s Thatcher is saved for the second half, and while she has the hair and the voice and the walk like a wormy spaniel scooting on a coir mat, it’s less satisfying than the other duologues. By the time Rufus Wright's Cameron appears they're virtually cheering Her Majesty on like a prizefighter about to make a final sucker punch.
Probably best appreciated by those who recall several of the Prime Ministers – Cameron babes may get less out of it although the history lesson is spelt out in capital letters for them and our American cousins – we’re sure this will decorate the West End for as long as Dame Helen cares to grace us with her presence. Unless Meryl fancies a go?
The Audience continues at the Gielgud Theatre until 15 June. Tickets from £25-£59 plus booking fees. Call 0844 482 5130 or book online. JohnnyFox received ticket, programme and hospitality from Premier PR.