After the Madness of George III - now back in the West End - here’s a play that could be called The Stammer of George VI. And just as Alan Bennett’s earlier play, that subsequently became a film, revolves around the king’s treatment at the hands of the medical profession, The King’s Speech is also the true royal story of a stammering Prince-turned-reluctant king and his treatment by an unqualified Australian speech therapist called Lionel Logue.
Charles Edwards (Bertie, King George Vl) in The King's Speech at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The 2010 film version, directed by Tom Hooper, is famously the most successful British independent film of all time, grossing some £250m, and counting, after costing only £8m. But unlike the endless parade of film-to-stage translations, David Seidler’s Oscar-winning screenplay actually began as a play whose film potential was spotted during a private reading at north London’s Pleasance Theatre.
Bringing it back to the stage now, though - especially with the film still so fresh in the mind - means that it adds nothing to what we’ve already enjoyed. The result is an efficient comfort-blanket of a play that, like the endless jukebox musicals that populate the West End, gives you what you already know you will enjoy.
It’s certainly never less than enjoyable, if occasionally surprisingly clunky, in Adrian Noble’s production. The action takes place on a constantly revolving stage that re-sets locations and scenes behind a large picture frame that bisects it. The frame also acts as a screen for atmospheric archival footage of events like the funeral of George V, which leads to the constitutional crisis of succession when Edward VIII, first in line to succeed him, renounces the throne so he can marry Mrs Wallis Simpson.
This much, this familiar, but Seidler cleverly focuses on the previously more unfamiliar issue of George VI’s speech problems. It’s a warm, compassionate, humorous script, to be sure, humanising the setting-aside of royal protocols so he can be treated effectively. Charles Edwards and Jonathan Hyde, as Bertie (George VI) and Logue respectively, aren’t Colin Firth or Geoffrey Rush, but they’re both fine actors and shouldn’t have to emulate them.
Yet the stage version forces them into producing copycat performances. And, despite luxury casting that includes Emma Fielding, Joss Ackland, Charlotte Randle and Michael Feast in the supporting roles of Bertie’s wife (later the Queen Mother), his father George V, Logue’s wife Myrtle and the Archbishop of Canterbury respectively, they’re essentially wasted in underwritten roles.
In the end, this stage production may offer the satisfying glow of the familiar, but it is also a wasted opportunity to provide a different take on a now well-established story.