Oscar-nominated writer Peter Morgan clearly has a thing for the Queen. His hit 2006 film portrayed a royal family at a time of crisis, when the death of Diana threatened to destroy public sympathy for the monarchy, and made a star of Helen Mirren. And here the same actress, a national treasure like our actual head of state, reprises the role in this play examining fictionalised weekly meetings with most of the 12 prime ministers who have served during her reign.
It’s a formidable list, which makes it perhaps odd that we open in the splendour of Buckingham Palace’s audience room with John Major (Paul Ritter), all big glasses and gawky movements in a sympathetic and sweet performance which occasionally treads dangerously close to caricature. The other meetings leap across history, meaning that Mirren’s costume changes require the dazzling dexterity of the contortionist. She is the silver-haired monarch hosting Gordon Brown one minute, the ingenue paying host to her first PM, Winston Churchill, the next (she learns fast, refusing to be patronised by the elder statesman).
Morgan and director Stephen Daldry offer us tasty morsels of gossip – presumably bits of hearsay – which, despite all the necessary caveats, cannot help conveying the somewhat cheeky notion that they may also be presenting historical truths. Why suggest, as this play does, that Gordon Brown was on anti-depressants and that the Queen fell asleep when hosting David Cameron or that she herself apparently is obsessive about shoes and pens, if such delicious stories aren’t true? What is and is not fiction does not necessarily diminish such episodes’ interest in the heat of the theatrical moment, but we can never describe this play as wholly straightforward or even honest.
What does feel truthful is the portrait of the Queen in what is essentially a hymn (a little sychophantic at times) to her steadfastness and sense of duty. The quality of the performances is generally high and Edward Fox, stepping in late to take on the role of Churchill from Robert Hardy, just about surmounts the obvious physical discrepancy between this tall and elegant actor and the gruff, tubby statesman in his latter years.
My personal favourite (and perhaps most surprisingly, the Queen’s as well) was Harold Wilson. These present the warmest exchanges, as Morgan draws on suggestions that her majesty and this gruff, blunt-speaking Labour politician (Richard McCabe) from Huddersfield got on like a house on fire. In one of many sweet touches, during their first meeting, he has problems with the tea tongs and grabs lumps of sugar which he plops surreptitiously in his tea.
Mirren’s Queen, who has a soft spot for the Scots and Scotland, is decent enough to find common ground with Gordon Brown, who particularly enjoys it when she refers to Tony Blair’s wife as Cheryl (although footage exists of the Queen and Brown meeting and he appears much less confident and relaxed in reality). Strangely enough, Blair himself doesn’t make an appearance.
The casting of Haydn Gwynne as Margaret Thatcher slightly misfires however. She’s a polished performer but so tall and rangy in the flesh that she never feels anything other than Gwynne impersonating the Conservative leader. And when the mask of reality slips, some of the shallowness of the material feels a little exposed, leading to a clunky and partisan scene with Maggie characterised solely by the Queen’s apparent dislike of her. Also, with Eden and the quickfire summary of Suez, the complexities are again skated over.
But these are minor caveats. The theatrical experience is sharpened and empowered with little vignettes in which Mirren communes sympathetically with her younger self (a shared role portrayed beautifully on the night I saw the show by Bebe Cave) about the magnitude of the job that awaits her. As with the audiences themselves (confidential, advisory, safe), there is a strong sense of the dynamics of therapy here, leading to some beautiful moments when the Queen reflects on her life – is she, she wonders, a “postage stamp with a pulse”?
The set is beautiful. The palace meeting room is exquisitely recreated, as is the drawing room of Balmoral in a scene where McCabe’s Wilson (supposedly a pipe smoker) puffs on his cigars. And we even get a surprise appearance from a pair of corgis. It’s all hugely enjoyable – just don’t believe everything you hear.