‘The Audience’ – Gielgud Theatre


While planning my trip to London, I hoped I might be able to catch Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren on stage, both of whom were appearing in the West End for limited seasons. I didn’t get to see Dench in John Logan’s Peter and Alice, but I was quite fortunate enough to catch Mirren’s performance in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, an episodic fantasia on the weekly meeting between Queen Elizabeth II and the Prime Minister. These meetings are informal and off the record, giving Morgan much in the way of creative freedom. There have been twelve PMs under the reign of Her Majesty; the play features eight.

The show has been doing extraordinary business, so I was unable to book a ticket prior to my departure, but I thought I’d give “day seats” (the London version of rush) a try. I woke up bright and early on Monday morning and made my way to the Gielgud Theatre around 8:30AM. When I arrived there were already several people in line. The box office opened at 10AM, at which point we were brought into the gorgeous lobby. The box office manager gave us instructions and told us the number of seats that were available, and that after those were sold, they would start selling standing room for the same price. Well, I missed out on getting a seat, but I was not about to pass up the opportunity to see Mirren in one of the hottest shows in London for the princely sum of £10.

The Audience is an affectionate personality piece designed to give Helen Mirren a tour-de-force star vehicle, which she delivers and how. The play itself is somewhat unexceptional; a series of vignettes connected by dialogues between elder Elizabeth and her younger self at various points in her childhood. Morgan’s writing is often sentimental and sometimes veers toward hagiography, but his dialogue is sharp and witty, and makes for great entertainment. Stephen Daldry’s sharp, insightful and intensely focused direction helps to keep the evening fluid and transitions seamless. Chronologically, the play spans the full 60 years of Elizabeth’s reign, but is presented in a non-linear fashion. Part of the fun comes from not knowing which era of Her Majesty’s reign we’re about to visit.

Mirren is utterly astonishing. The actress delivers a staggering performance with stunning mastery and wit. She embodies Her Majesty perfectly, modulating her performance to capture Elizabeth at the various points of her life. The transitions are extraordinary, with some of them happening right on stage in a matter of seconds. And this is not a retread of The Queen, in which Mirren played Her Majesty during the week after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Through the vignettes, we get a full portrait of a life dedicated to service, and of a person with an unflappable sense of duty, conscience, and compassion. And dry wit. Credit is also due to Bob Crowley for his costumes and Ivana Primorac for her exceptional hair and make-up design.

To my amazement, The Audience has 20 (!) actors onstage, as well as 2 corgis. The eight members of the “Dirty Dozen” are played by some of England’s finest actors. Among these players, Edward Fox makes a strong impression as Churchill in an early scene, and Paul Ritter (Reg in the beloved revival of The Norman Conquests) is a delight as a hapless John Major. Haydn Gwynne offers an amusing, if broad, portrait of the recently deceased Thatcher, who stalks into Buckingham Palace and confronts Her Majesty in a most brusque manner. The scene with David Cameron (Rufus Wright) was the audience favorite, with Mirren bringing down the house by nodding off as the current PM droned on incessantly. However, the most extraordinary support is supplied by Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson, who is rumored to have been the Queen’s favorite of the twelve. McCabe is big, bold and fearless. He’s also warm and funny, but also exceptionally moving in the scene where he tells the Queen of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and plans to step down.

Plans are underway for a Broadway transfer and audiences in New York (especially fans of Mirren) will lap up The Audience like cat nip. I didn’t know all the Prime Ministers or all of the political events and issues discussed, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the piece. I do understand that some changes are going to be made for American audiences. Tony Blair is not present in the current West End incarnation because Morgan wanted avoid direct comparisons to The Queen, but he is likely to be added for the Broadway production (though I hope Morgan retains all the delightful jokes had at the former Prime Minister’s expense). Also, I understand that the portrayal of Thatcher will be toned down for NY, as Americans tend to have more affection for her than the British. Regardless of what might change, I’ll tell you this: I can’t wait.

He Came, He Saw, and Oh, How He Conquered

“I only wanted to make you happy!”

I kept spouting that line at Roxie all day Sunday in my best (worst) English accent. She didn’t really know why I was saying it, but all the same she put up with my antics as usual. For those unfamiliar with The Norman Conquests, or more specifically with Round and Round the Garden, that is the final line of the entire trilogy of plays delivered by Norman at the end of a most hilariously heartbreaking weekend experienced by Norman and his rowdy gang of in-laws.

Truth of the matter is, while Norman drove his family to the brink of exasperation, he and his dysfunctional family (plus one veterinarian) charmed the hell out of audiences in both London and New York. Going back to see it one more time only cemented my initial reaction. If you had the opportunity to spend time at the Circle in the Square this past spring, you know what I mean. If you didn’t, I must say you should be kicking yourself right now for missing the best production of the 2008-09 season.

All six actors were exemplary. I was asked the question “Which is your least favorite?” And there was no way I could begin to answer it. Each performer brought so much to their characters, grounding then with brutal honesty that heightened the emotional stakes. The truer the performance, the more hilariously painful it was.

Ben Miles’ sad sack Tom was just as slow on the uptake, Paul Ritter, whose ass was the subject of the ITBA acceptance speech was as exasperated with his wife as ever, dropping acerbic quips like hydrogen bombs. Amelia Bullmore’s Ruth was more fascinating to watch as she patiently found herself acting more as a mother to Norman rather than a wife. Jessica Hynes is the caregiver of the unseen matriarch, frustrated in her loneliness and seeking an escape even if it is in her brother in law. Amanda Root turned the waspish harridan into an art form with the bossy, high-strung Sarah. Finally, Stephen Mangan was just all childlike innocence, unhappiness and unbridled sexuality rolled into one larger than life star turn. Though Tony voters decided that Roger Robinson gave the performance of the season in Joe Turner, Mr. Mangan, who should have won, gave a performance for the ages.

Roxie and I met up with Kari, who was also returning for a return visit and together we enjoyed our day immersed in the saga of a weekend holiday turned on its ear. The three plays are presented in their suggested order, starting in the morning at 11:30 with Table Manners, taking place in the dining room of the house. The second, Living Together moves the action into the living room (with the infamous rug…). And the final play in the trilogy is Round and Round the Garden that moves the action outdoors. By the time all is said and done that is 7 1/2 hours of theatre over an 11 hour spread.

It’s been said that any one of the plays can be seen on its own, or any combination in any order. However, I must stress that while the a la carte option sounds like a good idea, the full course trilogy marathon days truly allow for an audience member to experience the full exhilaration of the works. Table Manners introduced the characters and provides ample exposition for the remainder. It also doesn’t hurt that the characters in the first scene talks about the unseen Norman at such length, you cannot wait for him to enter. Living Together is still riotous, but provides something of a breather for the audience. In the middle play, there is more attention paid to the underlying problems souring the marriages, adding to the dramatic weight anchoring the characters in this situation. The last play fills in the final gaps, and is a raucous free for all with some of the funniest and most farcical moments of the series, as well as having the first and last scenes of the trilogy’s chronology.

Being the last marathon I had anticipated the entire day being sold out. However, Table Manners was not. Then Kari wisely reminded me it was a Sunday morning in New York City, most people are at church or downing their complimentary mimosas at brunch. Fortunately Roxie and I were seated with some marathon folks, so we had some friendly chatter with them. However there was a couple to our right who I’m almost convinced were apparitions. They didn’t crack a smile or show any response at all during the three plays, not once. After each play, they would mysteriously vanish without a trace. I’m surprised they would stick around for the entire day if they were that disinterested. Fortunately it did nothing to detract us from enjoying the actors and production onstage.

The afternoon show was almost sold out and I’m guessing a lot of seats were filled courtesy of TKTS. Part of the marathon experience that makes it so ideal is that you are already familiar with the characters, their quirks, their faults, etc. If you’ve just seen the earlier play, bits and pieces will be funnier to you than Joe and Jane Smith showing up for the first time. The rows behind us were such people, one even commenting “This must be something to do with the first one.” Folks, they were not wrong.

The final play, also the final performance of this entire production, had a house brimming with excitement and energy. Before the start of the play I realized that there was not a single empty seat to be had, and it was a standing room only crowd. This was a performance filled with friends making another trip to that house somewhere near East Grinstead to cheer on superlative acting and direction. Each actor received extensive entrance applause on his or her entrance. And then we were off on one final side-splitting, melancholic ride.

The curtain call was met with an instant standing ovation, as we cheered on this vibrant ensemble brought together in pure alchemy by the theatre gods and under the direction of genius Matthew Warchus (whose Tony should have been for this not God of Carnage). The standbys emerged from the wings to present each with flowers and a stuffed cat (I didn’t see if there were bandages on the paws). The actors took an immediate second call as is usually the case after the marathon. The house lights came up, and while some audience members got up and left enough of us stayed firmly planted at our seats applauding. The ovation surged louder than before prompting a third and final call for the actors. Since it was performed in the round, the actors bowed in each direction of the audience. Whenever they turned to another section, the cheers were especially stronger. I am rarely one to be vocal at a curtain call, but I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I called “Bravo!”

I still cannot pick if one play is better than the rest as a stand alone. For me, I still think of the entire trilogy as a mammoth three act play and best experienced as such. You could get away with seeing one, but if you enjoyed it you wouldn’t want to just stop there. The entire trilogy weaves together a tapestry of character and pathos in such a clever and unique way that seeing it all in one sitting is the definitive audience experience.

Alan Ayckbourn’s preface in the published version of the script talks about how the plays came to be written over the course of a single week (!) and the distinctive tones of each. He ends the foreward with this, which is pretty much in line with what I feel about the Norman trilogy:

“This crosswise way of writing them proved very satisfactory though of course made it quite impossible for me, even today, to really judge their effectiveness downwards or indeed to assess, beyond certain limits, whether the plays stand up independently. This is not, I’m afraid, a problem that one single individual can resolve. As soon as one play is read or seen, the other two plays are automatically coloured and affected by the foreknowledge gained from the first – which may sound like some sort of warning, though, in this case I hope, a little knowledge is a pleasurable thing.”

Afterwards we met up with new friends Eden, Lauren and Landice outside as I chose to stage door a production for the first time in over three years. The actors were lovely, gracious, witty and warm (and exhausted) as they signed and posed for pictures with those few of us who waited. It felt nice to be greeted with warm recognition by the three leading ladies, with whom I shared a most memorable elevator ride only a couple weeks before. I don’t normally give in to the stage door, but I had to tell them one last time how much I appreciated the performances and the production. Plus, I wanted to wish them well as all six were flying back home to England the following morning.

Norman only wanted to make us happy, and he did. Strike that. They all did.

"The Norman Conquests" says goodbye

I wasn’t the only one who was there the other day to spend time with the cast of The Norman Conquests. Broadway.tv talked to all six about their experience.

This weekend is your final opportunity to see a most brilliant ensemble in one of the most thrilling productions Broadway has seen in quite some time. I’ll be at the Sunday trilogy marathon to bid my six favorites a fond farewell. I hope to see you there.