Much of the furore surrounding Peter Morgan's The Audience concerns Helen Mirren's triumphant return to the role for which she won the Academy Award, in the movie The Queen (also scripted by Morgan), and rightly so; her performance is a tour de force, a master class of both voice and physicality, as she moves from young woman having just ascended the throne, to the steely elder we all know today with vigour (much aided by the superb hair and costume department, who transform her swiftly and deftly, often before our very eyes!) She skilfully walks the line between powerful sovereign, dealing with issues of state and Commonwealth, and down-to-earth wife and mother, raising a family in one of the most famous houses in the world.
And it is right, for the play itself would fall short without Mirren to carry it on her shoulders. Although the dialogue is witty and well-researched, the construct of separate scenes throughout the Queen's reign, each dealing with a different Prime Minister and their weekly meeting with Her Majesty, leave Little Room for tension, conflict or resolution, and therefore our main emotional investment is with the Queen herself. This is greatly aided by the genius addition of the younger Queen (tonight played Maya Gerber) who acts as a conscience and gives Mirren an inner turmoil to play with and provide rare moments of vulnerability. Two particularly poignant moments include a tender tribute to the Scots nurse who helped raise her, and the reciting of the Lord's Prayer, on her knees in The Audience room. These help to ground and humanise the woman that we all know to be strong and stern.
The best of these scenes are those have humour at their heart, particularly those concerning Thatcher (played by Haydn Gwynne with an icy bite), Wilson (portrayed with cheeky confidence by Richard McCabe) and Cameron (Rufus Wright, who dangerously walks the line with caricature but stays just on the right side). Fun is poked at situations that we know now to be resolved and also at today's society (The Queen's Samsung ringtone is a well-known pop song and she answers everyone's bemusement with a curt 'Grandchildren'). However, the scenes dealing with more serious matters, such as the Suez invasion and PM Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) suffer from the lack of build-up and tension. To be fair, some of the references and jokes flew over my youthful head; the elder members of The Audience roared with laughter throughout.
The set is kept simple with a beautiful concertina-background displaying room after room at Buckingham Palace, and we briefly take a trip north to Balmoral, complete with bagpipes, tartan and rain.
It will be interesting to see whether the play has a life beyond its almost sold-out twelve-week run, but it would be hard to see it survive without its star. With this role, Mirren has certified that she is the public's Queen of both stage and screen, and it would seem churlish to see someone else take her crown just yet.