Following on the heels of the blockbuster movie, this West End production of The King’s Speech has a lot of baggage – luckily, David Seidler’s script was written for the stage, and it’s here that it really shines. No slight on the film, but I’d rather see this again any day – an assured production with some rather fine performances. At the Wyndham’s Theatre.
In case the phenomenon has passed you by: The King’s Speech is the story of King George VI’s ascent to the throne, told through his attempts to conquer a debilitating speech impediment. A life-long stammerer, Bertie (as he is affectionately known to his friends) is suddenly thrust into a role that demands the ability to speak, as the threat of war engulfs Europe in the early 1930s: and it is failed actor Lionel Logue who manages to give him the voice he so desperately needs – but with the monarchy collapsing amidst rumours of scandal, will Bertie be able to hold his own?
Without being too gushing, this is really something else – it’s not a completely flawless production, but every aspect of it is professional, enjoyable and done to the very highest ability. The script is a fine kettle of fish – there’s political intrigue, courtly drama and pyschological drama all rolled into the mix, and it can be a bit bewildering leaping from one to the other – but the play makes a fine job of this by using a rather ingenious double-revolve and a large central screen, allowing us to move from scene to scene quickly and efficiently, as well as providing the basis for a number of multiple-room/scene effects.
This would all be quite hard to follow if it weren’t for some rather excellent acting: Charles Edwards banishes any memories of Colin Firth with a perfectly pitched portrayal, combining just the right level of royal arrogance and privilege with a shy stammer of a lisp that still manages to fill the theatre – an impressive achievement. Jonathan Hyde is on top form as the eccentric Logue with a wonderfully avuncular delivery, finding just the right balance with Edwards, although his scenes with his wife (Charlotte Randle) suffer a little from lack of chemistry, as well as from her rather too broad Australian accent. Emma Fielding, on the other hand, finds just the right tone opposite both men, plenty of sass but still prim enough to find Logue a little grating – a lovely job.
The support is able, although Ian McNeice’s Churchill (which Doctor Who fans will recognise) and Michael Feast’s Cosmo Lang do border a little on parody – although it is lovely to see Joss Ackland as George V grinding his way through Bertie with all of the tact of a cement-mixer. In the end, however, they’re all window-dressing for the central roles, and Edwards and Hyde do them truly wonderfully.
It’s difficult to criticise too heavily, as the standing ovation at the end was pretty resounding – this is clearly a solid crowd-pleaser, and I’m sure it will run for an age. However, it’s not perfect: while the revolve is used to great effect, by the end I was growing very tired of watching a black rectangle spin on the stage, despite the lovely effects it was creating. There’s also the unshakeable fact that this is a story with little to no threat – so what if the speech goes badly? Historically, it didn’t make any difference at all – it’s not like George’s speech prevented a civil war (as indicated in the script), and the production tries to make it seem as if George single-handedly held back the forces of darkness by inspiring the people; at least, that’s what I took from the rather pompous final reveal of a sea of people listening to the eponymous speech.
For me, this is a story about characters – we care because we care about them. Edwards and Hyde do everything they can for their characters, and it’s hard not to love Bertie when he reveals the cruelties of growing up as a member of the Royal family, or Logue when he fails yet another audition. This is the meat the play is built on, yet Adrian Noble seems convinced that he has to make it about patriotism and national pride, which doesn’t ring as truly as he may have hoped.
It’s not that any of this stands in the way here – it is a truly great show, and these are just the niggles that stop it from blowing me away. It’s well worth seeing, especially for Edwards – his King George VI is more human, more loveable and more kingly than Firth’s ever could have been.