"The Dirty Dozen" is how the Queen describes the 12 Prime Ministers she's entertained in her 60-year reign.
Well, sadly not the Queen (such juicy quotes don't slip from the royal mouth), rather the stately stage and screen star Helen Mirren, reprising her role as Elizabeth II in The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre, directed by Stephen Daldry.
Written by Peter Morgan, the new play sees a revived partnership between actress and playwright; Morgan's screenplay for the film The Queen helped earn Mirren an Oscar for Best Actress in 2006.
The Queen (Helen Mirren) and Young Elizabeth (Nell Williams)
Mirren's plucky film portrayal of a bold, down to earth and thoughtful monarch is present in her stage persona, with many new sides - girlish, grumpy, vulnerable, desperate, wise and powerful - as the audience is given a fly-on-the-wall view of the Queen's private meetings with Prime Ministers throughout her reign.
Leaping from decade to decade, the darting scenes should feel dizzying, but with the slickest onstage costume and wig changes I've ever seen, Mirren's constant presence holds The Audience together.
Expert alterations in accent and pitch of voice tells us if we are in the presence of the young Queen, shy, diligent and in awe of her Prime Ministers, or a wise monarch with dry wit and so much experience under her belt that she could run for office.
The Audience often feels like a comedy, not just because of the Queen's deadpan comments, but also the confessional performances of the Prime Ministers that sit on her silk-upholstered psychiatrist's couch. Straight from a Spitting Image sketch, John Major (Paul Ritter) declares he would rather give up leadership and watch cricket.
Haydn Gwynne delivers a wonderfully hammed-up Margaret Thatcher, earning a round of applause with her stage entrance, before relishing the undulating tones of the haughty Conservative leader. Gwynne's Thatcher somewhat overpowers her majesty - a clever nod to the reported tensions that existed between the two power-women of the 80s.
Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne)
Morgan loves to portray the fragile human side of Elizabeth II; a stiff upper lip with hidden vulnerability. Suffering from flu in one scene, the Queen furiously shouts at John Major, then drops to her knees in despair saying the Lord's Prayer in another.
A moving narrative device sees conversations between the Queen and her younger self (Maya Gerber). Morgan and Daldry show the monarch longing for her carefree days of girlhood, a woman who is still a little girl lost in a big palace. A sweet and touching insight, but the frequent use of a 'conversation with oneself' verges on the over-sentimental - a little too at odds with our notion of a no-nonsense Queen.
John Major (Paul Ritter) and The Queen (Helen Mirren)
Although based on hard facts and researched accounts, The Audience is entirely intelligent speculation - a willing suspension of disbelief is needed, making Morgan's play all the more fun. Mirren plays the Queen with a deep tenderness in a brave undertaking, once again pulling off the royal role with regal flair and humanity.
The Audience is running at the Gielgud Theatre, London, until 15 June 2013.
John Major (Paul Ritter) in The Audience
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