HM the Queen

She is a stoic and a good listener. She has a quiet and ironic sense of humour and a superhuman sense of duty. She thinks nothing of picnicking in Balmoral in freezing temperatures and her favourite Prime Minister was Harold Wilson. Winston Churchill refused to sit down when he was with her and John Major, Britain’s most reluctant Prime Minister, treated her as his psychotherapist. She is a humanitarian who counts among her friends many of the leaders of African nations and she would give anything in the world for privacy and the privilege of being allowed to be an Ordinary Person.

This of course is Peter Morgan’s version of our head of state and Queen, Helen Mirren – sorry, Queen Elizabeth the Second. His play The Audience probably tells us more about our reigning monarch than we’ll ever learn about the enigmatic Real Thing, and in a manner that is sympathetic to the point of idolisation. A humanitarian, who treats her Prime Ministers with equal respect no matter what party they represent; who is up to speed on current events yet has a profound knowledge and sense of history; who acknowledges that – unlike Queen Beatrice or the Pope – duty dictates that she will never retire or abdicate.

The Queen hasn’t seen the play apparently, but she should. And now that National Theatre Live has filmed it she could, in the privacy of Buckingham Palace perhaps, which she dislikes (according to Peter Morgan). If she’s anything like this portrayal of her she’d be tickled pink.

The play owes almost everything to Helen Mirren of course, in fact you could say that Dame Helen ‘owns’ the Queen, and while other actresses have portrayed her in the past – Prunella Scales comes to mind – nobody personifies her more solidly than HM. Long may they both reign.

Alongside HM is a cracking cast – in particular Richard McCabe as a (rather more personable than the real thing) Harold Wilson and an unrecognisable Paul Ritter (in wig) as John Major. There is a ‘magical’ costume change where HM is transformed from her 60s to her 20s in full view of the audience. Everything, from the costumes to HM’s astonishing ability to age and de-age and change shape in seconds, is immaculate.

Tonight (June 15) is the play’s last night at the Gielgud Theatre. But now that the miraculous NT Live has recorded it, generations to come will have the unique opportunity to view one of the great performances of our times. The Audience was transmitted all over London and the UK last night and you could hardly get a ticket. It’s a revolution in theatre and I only wish NT Live had been around a hundred or more years ago so we could all have seen what Olivier and Irving and Kean and Garrick were really like.

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2013 and all that

Some great shows coming up in 2013:

Simon Russell Beale in Peter Nichols’ hilarious Privates on Parade, directed by Michael Grandage (opens December 2012).

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Helen Mirren as the Queen in The Audience, written by Peter Morgan, with Paul (Curious Incident) Ritter as John Major, Robert Hardy as Churchill and Haydn Gwynn as Thatcher (the play obviously covers a considerable period – Blair and Brown have yet to be cast), directed by Stephen Daldry.

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The transfer of The Curious Incident, which means the National Theatre will have three shows in the West End, which will help the subsidised coffers no end. (War Horse has reputedly already earned the NT £9m).

Chapter Road gets on the map

When 15-year-old Christopher runs away from his father’s home in Swindon and makes his epic journey to London – which he’s never been to before – and he reaches Paddington Station and needs to get to his mother’s place at 452c Chapter Road, NW2, I had to stop myself from yelling – ‘Bakerloo Line to Baker Street, change to Jubilee Line north to Dollis Hill and you’re right there!’ (Chapter Road is right at the end of the street where I live you see and I go down it most days to get to Dollis Hill tube station) – so caught up was I with young Christopher’s plight and his utterly convincing portrayal in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the National Theatre Cottesloe.

Theatre programme

There is no 452c Chapter Road – I just checked – and nor is there any sign of an elf, or gnome, in any nearby front garden, let alone a fishpond. Chapter Road is a pretty ordinary road by and large, mostly lettings, rather a lot of rubbish on the pavements and old furniture out the front, but good views of the Wembley Stadium arch. I’m not particularly surprised Christopher’s mother didn’t like living there. But it’s a bit of a thrill to see it featured in what has to be one of the best shows on offer in London, now and for a long time.

It’s a bit late in the day to post a review of the play – it’s already been seen on NTLive, here and in Australia and no doubt around the world – and in any case it’s booked out for the rest of its run. I just would like to comment however on its more unusual aspects, in particular the meticulous detail: the clever light projections on the stage floor, the wonderfully inventive and recognisable choreography (Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett from Frantic Assembly), even the little toy trains circumnavigating the theatre space. I loved everything about it – the production, the settings, the performances, the commitment (I was in the front row so the actors were virtually sweating into my lap; I was also sitting in a Prime Seat with  a Number on it, which was scary, till I realised it was another (benign) production detail: 109 being a prime number (presumably)). I loved that it was sweet but not cloying, tender without being remotely mawkish. Every character (almost) is good-hearted. Everyone wants to do their best for Christopher. His father’s love for his son is so powerful it’s agonising to watch.

Luke Treadaway & Paul Ritter, son and father (telegraph.co.uk)

Hats off to everyone: to all the actors and Luke Treadaway and Paul Ritter in particular, to Marianne (War Horse) Elliott (director), Bunnie Christie (designer) and Paule Constable (lighting). Not forgetting Mark Haddon of course, and the adapter Simon Stephens (who I believe must be several people, he is so prolific).

The play is transferring to the Apollo Theatre in March 2013.

We are very lucky people.