The King's Speech
Birmingham Repertory Theatre in association with Chichester Festival Theatre
From 25 February 2015 to 07 March 2015
Review by Steve Orme
David Seidler won both an Academy Award and a BAFTA for best original screenplay for The King’s Speech. The man who developed a stammer before his third birthday, believing it was caused by the trauma he suffered during World War II, was advised by his wife to rewrite the work as a play. Now the stage version is embarking on its first national tour.
The play has a greater depth than the film, revealing gems including how doctors euthanised King George V so that news of his death could be released by the BBC and The Times rather than by the “scurrilous” evening papers.
Two major producing houses, Birmingham REP and Chichester Festival Theatre, have combined to put together a classy production with a strong cast that is fit for a king.
From the lively opening, when the future King George VI is served tea and toast while servants dress him, to the emotional ending, this is a superb show.
The King’s Speech tells the story of the relationship between stammering King George VI, known to his family as Bertie, and his speech therapist. Australian Lionel Logue prepares the future king to address the nation at a time when engaging with the public, particularly through radio, was becoming an integral part of the monarchy’s duties.
The country is on the brink of war. After the death of King George V, his heir Edward VIII, otherwise called David, abdicates because he is unable to marry twice-divorced Wallis Simpson.
Bertie has to face his fears, proving he is fit to lead the country and is not “dim”, as some people have concluded.
Any production of The King’s Speech stands or falls on the rapport between the two lead actors. Here there is an affinity between Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan that is funny, remarkable and often touching.
Coulthard gives a regal performance as King George VI, the man frustrated by his affliction who initially dismisses Logue’s unconventional methods. His inner steel comes to the fore when he rages that he has a voice and a right to be heard.
Coulthard’s mannerisms are impeccable, closing his eyes and lowering his head when he stammers. His frustration earns sympathy from everyone in the audience.
Donovan, describing himself as an actor who sings, is perfectly cast as the cocky Aussie who rules the roost in his own office, even when royalty pays a visit. The “jumped-up jackeroo from the outback” who has failed to achieve his ambition of becoming a Shakespearean actor is confident of his ability as a speech therapist even though he has no formal qualifications.
The way the two men gradually connect and have respect for each other is heart-warming.
The King’s Speech could be perceived as two men talking in a room. But Birmingham REP artistic director Roxana Silbert’s production is much more than that.
There are commendable performances from the women behind the men, Claire Lams as Queen Elizabeth and Katy Stephens as Myrtle Logue. Nicholas Blane is an unflappable Winston Churchill and Martin Turner's Archbishop Cosmo Lang is perturbed about the nation's future.
Other versions of the play have used newsreel footage from the 1930s projected onto screens. But set and costume designer Tom Piper—the man who designed the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation at the Tower of London—has opted for a simple set and few props. The action moves seamlessly from the Palace to Logue’s poky office while panels open to reveal a BBC announcer introducing each broadcast.
At the end of the performance I saw at the REP, the audience gave an enthusiastic standing ovation. It was well deserved.