The King's Speech
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
In 2007, at Islington’s Pleasance Theatre, sixteen actors were nervously waiting on stage to give an unrehearsed reading of Seidler’s unproduced play to an invited audience. Quite by chance the mother of film director Tim Hooper was among the audience and later called her son with the words “I think I’ve found your next film”. On such quirks of fate are lives decided, and Hooper’s film, now world wide, has won Academy Awards for best film, best director, best screenplay and best actor (Colin Firth).
Back to the original play, and the Yvonne Arnaud has assembled such a superb and prestigious cast and creative team that, in the intimacy of theatre, the audience becomes totally enthralled and it is as if we are watching the events as they unfold and not actors at all.
Written from the heart by a man with first hand knowledge of the demoralising effects of a stutter, the play mainly focuses on the developing, sometimes stormy, relationship between the then Duke of York and his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, but it also brings in more political content than was obvious in the film with discussions, arguments and sometimes confrontations between Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) and Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Feast).
Apparent too is the terrifying thought that had King Edward VIII not abdicated, Britain could well have been ruled by a puppet king under the dictate of Adolph Hitler. As a little ‘aside’ the slight manipulation of the time of King George V’s death in order to make the morning papers was a surprise discovery, and legendary octogenarian Joss Ackland proves he has lost none of his acting ability as the bluff, authoritative aging king.
Anthony Ward, who created the amazingly effective and complicated construction for Chichester’s Sweeney Todd, has here provided a deceptively simple set of a giant screen set on a double revolve. Sometimes transparent, this can show the action in two rooms at the same time revolving to concentrate on one, and also is the medium for showing footage of the time—the late king’s funeral and the crowds listening avidly to the royal speeches—and it is these obligatory speeches which are a nightmare for the stammering Duke, even before he is forced to become a shy and reluctant King George VI, very aware of his duty and obligations.
The contrast between the two royal brothers is emphasised with the fun-loving David (Daniel Betts) dancing a Charleston with his lover Wallis Simpson (Lisa Baird) while, on the other side of the screen, Bertie tries to come to terms with affairs of state.
Charles Edwards is the epitome of the Duke, his nervousness and anxiety so palpable that the audience is holding its collective breath willing him to get to the end of his speech without stumbling. The abrasive, down to earth Aussie (impressively performed by Jonathan Hyde) is probably the first man to treat him as an equal, insisting on calling him Bertie instead of ‘Your Royal Highness’ and this is not without its problems for a man used to deference and leads to a lot of comical interplay between the two men.
Adrian Noble directs with true feeling and the production is engrossing, touching and yet often very funny. Events progress right through to the coronation, where Lionel finally addresses the king as ‘Your Majesty’, but his hand is clasped with the words “My friend” a moment so moving it brought tears to the eyes, but what a wonderful, and true, story.
Touring to Nottingham, Bath, Brighton, Richmond and Newcastle.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor