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Reviewed: The Audience; Trelawny of the Wells

A cartoon of cameos.

The Audience; Trelawny of the Wells
The Gielgud, London W1;
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

Beyond the performances, beyond the jokes, the greatest thing about The Queen, the Peter Morgan film in which Helen Mirren first impersonated Elizabeth II, was that you believed it. The week of Diana’s death must have gone roughly like that for Balmoral and Downing Street. The problem with The Audience, in which Mirren returns to her Oscarwinning gig, is that you don’t.

Mirren, required to change wigs and dresses as her age waxes and wanes through the fractured narrative, is everything you have read about her. She can be warm and cold, embody wit and humourlessness, authority and vulnerability. She even carries off conversations with her younger self, which, in less sure hands, could have looked like a barmy dialogue with her inner child.

Morgan seems to have no problem imagining himself into the Queen’s mind – or rather we, knowing little of it, believe he has. The play is composed of scenes taken from the weekly audience Her Majesty has had with her prime ministers: 12, in reality, but just seven dramatised here, with a walk-on for Jim Callaghan. Her first, Churchill, tells her that it will be her duty to conceal her feelings from her subjects, and the tension, such as there is, is generated by the possibility that one of her premiers will irritate her so much that her veneer of disinterest will crack before her subjects’ elected leader.

The best scene is not, however, an invented 1992 sketch in which, overcome by a cold and a hot toddy, she snaps at John Major, but her row with Margaret Thatcher (the too tall Haydn Gwynne). Here, Elizabeth oversteps her constitutional mark and pleads with her contemporary to impose sanctions on South Africa in order to save her true love, the Commonwealth. It is a good moment because we believe the Queen’s motivations. They are backed up by a footnote in which her younger self recites her early broadcast in which she spoke of her determination to be of service to our “great imperial family” (although Morgan cheats by including a line about “this ancient commonwealth which we all love so dearly” – a phrase not actually about the commonwealth of nations at all).

But mostly the play proceeds by, and gets it laughs from, libelling prime ministers. The profligacies with the truth start in 1995 with Major in a fit of confessional breakdown before his monarch, an encounter embroidered with the little-known fact that it was the Queen who advised him to stand for re-election as party leader. Then Churchill makes her cry by refusing to let her take her husband’s surname. Harold Wilson (played by the one great lookalike of the evening, Richard Mc- Cabe) is a pleb who brings a Polaroid camera into his first audience. Gordon Brown confesses to her – as he never did to us – that he had been “given stuff to take” for his moods (they make him put on weight – sounds like antidepressants to me). It was she, apparently, who urged him to go for a snap election in 2007. Cameron, meanwhile, is such a gasbag that he sends her to sleep. There are pleasures to be had from these cameos but they are the pleasures offered by a cartoon.

The Audience is a theatrical confection and a sticky one, a work of consolation that attempts to persuade us that the greatest miracle of British democracy is its least democratic institution. In the Queen’s final dialogue with her younger self, PMs are described as either “mad people” or “over-complicated”, in need of measuring themselves up against something “unchanging, permanent, simple”. I would hesitate even to call The Audience a play, although had Morgan not so overegged Wilson’s debut encounter, there might have been something with longer and more poignant potential in the Harold-Elizabeth relationship. Morgan wrote his great Windsor- PM drama with The Queen, and Blair’s absence from The Audience (presumably he was beginning to bore himself on the subject) just reminds you of that much better work.

The director Joe Wright and writer Patrick Marber’s “respectful additions and ornamentation” to Trelawny of the Wells may have, for all I know, traduced Arthur Pinero’s original comedy. Certainly there is a grinding gearshift towards the end when we are meant to be moved by Rose Trelawny (the winsome Amy Morgan), an impossibly shallow actress who loses her stardom but finds true love. It seems we are also supposed to be cheering on Tom Wrench, a bright young playwright (underplayed by Daniel Kaluuya) who pioneers a new theatrical naturalism. But for most of the night, this is a glorious send-up of luvvies: their pretentions, egos, compulsive insincerity, but also their innocence.

The genius of the piece is, in act two, to remove Rose to the home of her well-off betrothed. If upper-middle-class Victorian households were as frigid and formal as the Gowers, no wonder the music hall caught on. The house is ruled by the dictator Sir William, who imposes rules of etiquette that almost make breathing a faux pas. Sir William is a triumph for Ron Cook who also plays a theatrical landlady in the first act. After a while it is hard not to giggle at the pompous ass’s mere entry on stage.

For all that, the funniest moment of a funny night is when Peter Wright, as a wellcured old ham, protests to his wife that he has been asked to play an “old stagey out-ofwork actor” in Wrench’s new play. “Will you be able to get near it?” asks Maggie Steed as his loyal spouse.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem