First premiered in February 2013, The Crown writer Peter Morgan’s imagined meetings between Elizabeth II and seven of her thirteen Prime Ministers is a fascinating conceit, as we will never ever know what was actually discussed, but Morgan’s writing, together with Samuel Hodge’s direction and Rosanna Vize’s intimate setting, draws us into the private world of the royal audience, and surely what we see must contain more than a grain of truth!
Staged in a rarely-used traverse layout, with audience both in front of and behind the actors, almost all the action takes place on a small carpeted dais, simply set with two chairs, which are moved to slightly different positions to indicate the next Prime Ministerial audience. In between each audience, Her Majesty changes costume in full view in a delicately-worked piece of choreography, assisted by her discreetly ever-present Equerry (Sharon Singh).
Each Prime Minister is brought on and off very neatly on a conveyor belt (as are her outfits).This later serves to create a waltz-like setting for The Queen’s frosty debate on South African sanctions with Margaret Thatcher (Lizzie Hopley, also doubling as The Queen’s childhood Nanny).
As Her Majesty Faye Castelow was quite excellent, treading fine diplomatic lines between remaining totally neutral and yet indicating how she felt about a topic without actually saying anything. Subtly changing the clipped accent that we know so well, along with her body language to hint at her advancing years (as well as her childhood) she was on stage throughout, demanding our attention at every turn and, on countless occasions, our sympathy for the restricted position she found herself in when it came to advising on matters of state. Throughout, her sense of humour shone through and lightened many a moment of constitutional crisis, though not first without showing her humanity and, at times, her frailty.
Paul Kemp, as seven of her 13 Prime Ministers, had the most demanding task of, not so much becoming the characters, but more hinting at them with voice and posture. A fatherly Winston Churchill, refusing to be seated at his first audience, and Harold Wilson, with mac, pipe and Polaroid camera, fared best, though John Major (sounding a bit like Peter Cook’s EL Wisty) was suitably diffident and self-effacing, though manfully coping with the Charles and Diana situation. Kemp had less to work with for David Cameron and Anthony Eden (flapping desperately over The Suez crisis), though his Tony Blair, snapping instantly out of the Gordon Brown conversation, was spot-on with his defence of the Iraq War.
The most moving moment came towards the end when Harold Wilson admitted to the The Queen that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, especially sad as earlier in the piece he had demonstrated his photographic memory. The Queen’s sympathy was evident, and we were left in little doubt that, despite his political beliefs, he was quite possibly her favourite.
This is an intriguing, instructive and very amusing piece of contemporary theatre and I urge our readers to see it before it closes on 22 June. You will not be disappointed.