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Lest you think this play about Margaret Thatcher and The Queen and their ‘audiences’ owes anything to Peter Morgan’s The Audience, perhaps I should begin by telling you that it started life as one of the nine plays in Women Power & Politics more than three years ago here at the Tricycle Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/women-power-politics). It was one of the highlights of that and now it’s a full length premiere league treat.

It covers Thatcher’s whole period in office and there are two Queen’s and two Thatcher’s – ‘younger’, who are mostly ‘in audience’ and ‘older’, who are mostly looking back, commenting and correcting –  with two men playing all of the male roles (plus Nancy Reagan!), fighting over who plays Neil Kinnock. That’s a lot of events and a lot of audiences. It’s a whistle-stop history of the 80’s told through these weekly meetings and it’s hugely entertaining in Indhu Rubasingham’s excellent fast-paced production. It is, of course, largely speculative, yet it comes to the same conclusions as Morgan did – but by focusing on the Queen’s relationship with this one Prime Minister, it’s able to go into much more depth.

The performances are all superb. Stella Gonet & Fenella Woolgar get the public and private Thatcher to a tee and Marion Bailey & Clare Holman do the same with Elizabeth II. The men – Jeff Rawle & Neet Mohan – play 17 roles between them, from footmen to protesters and Michael Hestletine to Kenneth Kaunda, and are allowed to step out of their characters from time to time, which makes for a lot of fun The existence of an audience is occasionally acknowledged as the fourth wall disappears and we’re addressed directly.

Being in an audience of people old enough to have lived through this period made for a superb atmosphere at the performance I attended. This is an enormous pleasure and if it doesn’t get a West End transfer so that many more people can see it, I will be both surprised and disappointed.

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The risk of coming to this late (I saved it up for some visitors) is that it wouldn’t live up to its expectations. By the interval, I was beginning to think that was actually going to happen; it was good but not great. The second half lifted it to another level altogether, so it’s good to report (not that you’re that interested by now anyway) satisfaction rather than disappointment, accompanied by some surprise……

……..surprise that it has been rewritten to reflect Thatcher’s death & funeral plus the abdication of both Queen Beatrix & The Pope, surprise that some PM’s turn up two or three times, surprise that it isn’t chronological, surprise at which PM’s have been left out (most notably Blair) and surprised at the combination of light (comedy) and shade (poignancy) that it achieves.

I thought Helen Mirren got off to a shaky start, but she’s soon in her stride. She’s better playing the older queen than the younger queen, and that’s nothing to do with he own age. Her on-stage quick changes are hugely impressive (without the flashing for which she was once notorious!) and her discussions with herself as a child were very effective.

I liked all of the PM performances, particularly Paul Ritter’s comic Major and Haydn Gwynne’s assertive Thatcher, though by his third appearance Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson shone above all and you could see why he won his Olivier. Another surprise was that what I expected to be a series of two-handers turned out to have 16 actors playing 21 roles.

It’s good to be reminded how good a director Stephen Daldry is and we hopefully won’t have to wait so long again. Bob Crowley’s elegant settings facilitate the speedy scene changes so crucial to the smooth flow of a play with so many of them. All-in-all, it’s an impressive staging.

Of course, Peter Morgan’s play is largely speculative, yet somehow I left the theatre feeling that I’d just seen real events portrayed – perhaps because it confirmed my own prejudices, but probably because that’s just what a well made, well staged and well performed play can do. Good to see one originated in the West End for a change.

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