Thursday, January 26, 2017


James Karas

The Audience, Peter Morgan’s play about the weekly visits of the Prime Ministers of England with Queen Elizabeth II has been brought to Toronto for a Canadian production. It is a largely successful staging directed by Christopher Newton with Fiona Reid in the lead role.

What the Prime Minister and Her Majesty say during their visits is confidential but that has not deterred Morgan from writing a highly entertaining and intelligent play. The conversations may be fictitious but we are prepared to accept them as probable.

The play premiered in 2013 by which time Elizabeth had twelve Prime Ministers from Winston Churchill to David Cameron, “The Dirty Dozen” as she calls them. The play dramatizes her audience with eight of them. The original play had Prime Minister James Callaghan make a very short appearance and did not include the wily Tony Blair. In this production, Callaghan is omitted and Blair (Kevin Klassen) is included.
 Evan Buliung and Fiona Reid in THE AUDIENCE ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
 Fiona Reid is one of our finest actors especially in comic roles and her performance is highly credible. She manages a good English accent and her Elizabeth is imperious, humble, witty, intelligent and touching. The Queen is sympathetic to Harold Wilson (Nigel Bennett), withstands the onslaught of Margaret Thatcher (Kate Hennig), tries to strike a deal with Winston Churchill (John B. Lowe) and defends her position as being consecrated by the grace of God and realizes that she may be no more than a postage stamp with a pulse. That is quite a range and if it is not accurate, so be it. We are watching a play and not a history lesson.

All of that is well and good but there was one inexplicable and annoying mannerism by Reid. She kept looking to her left while her visitors were sitting on her right. I could not figure out why she was doing it unless there was a script somewhere and she was checking her lines. Director Christopher Newton should take care of this.

The Prime Ministers would speak in posh and not so posh English accents except for Benedict Campbell who played the Scottish Gordon Brown. Campbell is a superb actor with a powerful voice but the Scottish brogue that he attempted did not sound very Scottish. In fairness some of the other actors were less than perfect but one should and we did make allowances.

The cast of THE AUDIENCE ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
We are led to believe that Harold Wilson, for whom the queen seems to have some affection as much as she is permitted to show in the circumstances, was a favourite of hers and of course Morgan draws a sympathetic picture of the Labour leader. He has risen from the lower classes but he and the Queen find some common ground that may seem unlikely between Her Majesty and her Prime Minister. Wilson admits to smoking a pipe in public to appear folksy and approachable while he really puffs cigars in private. During his second scene with the Queen he discloses to her that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. A fine job by Nigel Bennett.
Hennig’s Thatcher is what all her detractors see her as: a pitiless woman who wanted to change society and make people self-reliant and richer, grasping individuals with no regard for anyone else. The Good Samaritan is remembered only because he had money, according to the Iron Lady.       

The set by Christina Poddubiuk is monumental without being posh, in the large reception room in Buckingham Palace and suitable in the scenes at Balmoral Palace.

Christopher Newton does a good job in directing what is to some extent a straightforward play of duets without failing to give us variations on the encounters. The royal families of England seem to provide an endless supply of plot for movies and plays and I found myself enjoying this one.

The Audience by Peter Morgan continues until February 26, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto, ON, M5V 1H9.

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