THE KING’S SPEECH
The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 26th February, 2015
David Seidler’s play became more widely known – globally, in fact – through its Oscar-winning film adaptation. Add to that the ever-popular Jason Donovan in the cast and you have quite a seat-filler on your hands.
It’s almost a history play, in the Shakespearean sense. We see the trials and tribulations of those who rule. Functioning as a chorus, Winston Churchill (Nicholas Blane) and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Martin Lang) keep the historical details and no small amount of Royal gossip coming.
But at its heart, it is the story of the friendship between two men who are, almost literally, poles apart. Raymond Coulthard, who has always looked regal, is stammering Bertie, driven to seek the assistance of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Jason Donovan). The best scenes are when these two are alone together, negotiating through their prickly relationship both a friendship and a means to save the credibility of a monarchy under pressure.
Coulthard is sublime – his is the more challenging role – and, regardless of one’s views of the monarchy as an institution – you can’t help rooting for him. Donovan inhabits his role as the bluff Australian, who doesn’t give a stuff for protocol and convention, and it’s a revelatory performance. He seems totally at home and natural, in contrast with Coulthard’s repressed and vulnerable Prince. Logue’s auditions for Shakespearean roles are terrible – but Donovan keeps their mannered delivery within the realms of believability.
Both men are supported by their wives. Claire Lams is cool-headed but caring as Bertie’s Mrs (mother to our present Queen), withering in her putdowns. The splendid Katy Stephens is Logue’s Sheila, Myrtle, adding more Aussie drawl among the cut-glass accents. Bertie’s brother David, who becomes Edward VIII, is very much the villain of the piece – not because of his anti-Semitism and his fraternisation with Nazis, but because his affair with an American divorcee threatens to undermine the Establishment. Jamie Hinde plays him as a nasty, hedonistic piece of work. All our sympathies are skewed towards Bertie, the victim of bullying and mockery by David and also their father, George V (William Hoyland).
Tom Piper’s set is all wooden panels – the floorboards radiate in a sunburst, bringing to mind a 1930s wireless – but gradually reveals its secrets and its versatility as the action unfolds. Director Roxana Silbert uses the flexibility of the set to the hilt, keeping the action continuous, with transitions flowing from one scene to the next, like a musical. But it is her handling of the ups and downs, the peaks and troughs of the central relationship of the two men that shows attention to detail and an ear for contrast and an eye for timing.
The show is a triumph for all concerned. Even if you’ve seen the film, I defy you not to be royally entertained throughout and then, right at the end, moved by the simple declaration of gratitude and friendship, and a breach of protocol on Bertie’s part: he removes his glove to shake Logue by the hand. In those closing seconds, we see how far he has come. Logue has not only taught him how to speak in public, he has turned a Prince into a man.