Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 11th March, 2013
There is a trend in recent cinema of making films for the older market. Think of Song For Marion and that one about the hotel in India. And Quartet, that’s another one. In a way, this new play follows that trend in that the main characters are well over the hill, with the concerns and extensive back stories of those who have been kicking around the planet for several decades. I’d argue the play is more than an attempt to attract a particular demographic and has universal appeal.
Earnest and professionally cheerful nurse Katy moves into the bungalow of elderly couple Maurice and Helena to provide palliative care. He has terminal cancer and his wife has a severe case of denial. As Katy settles in, she learns (and we learn) about Maurice’s past. Formerly a jeweller, he had the privilege of guarding the crown jewels the night before the coronation. This duty afforded him a few hours in the company of the young queen, an encounter he has never forgotten. In fact he has been banging on about it, to his wife’s dismay, for sixty years.
Time is running out for Maurice. He strives to stay alive for his 90th birthday – on that day he is expecting a very special visitor, based on a pact made on that night before the coronation. No one believes him, but cheery Katy decides to indulge the old man. She and Helena cook up a ruse: Katy will dress up as the Queen and fulfil Her Majesty’s obligations on her behalf.
Nichola McAuliffe’s play is a diamond. The script is warm and touching but never mawkish or sentimental and, above all, it is very funny. Maurice (Julian Glover) is fond of the corny and/or salacious joke. His sense of humour and his faith that the Queen will come to tea keep him going. Helena (Sheila Reid) is exasperated but eventually comes to face the truth.
Julian Glover is marvellous as the ailing Maurice. The first act closes with a lengthy monologue from him as he tells Nurse Katy about that fateful night in the Tower of London. He holds her and us spellbound. In the second act, he stumbles around, bent over his walking frame, trailing an intravenous drip. There is something extra poignant about seeing such a giant brought low by infirmity. The play is not without its hard-hitting moments. Beneath the veil of humour, there is fear and anguish.
The playwright herself plays Katy as a fussy but sympathetic spinster. She also gets the chance to impersonate the Queen in a wonderful scene, the jewel in this play’s crown, that shows how versatile an actor she is and proves that Helen Mirren hasn’t cornered that particular market.
Sweet and funny, beautifully written and constructed, Maurice’s Jubilee shows us the effects of old age and terminal illness on love and life. It also gives us a view of our monarch in a positive and amusing light, with some belly-laughs along the way, although it is for Nichola McAuliffe that I came away feeling a reinforced respect.