“No emotions. Not in public.”
Despite winning 4 Oscars in 2011, early treatments of David Seidler’s The King’s Speech envisioned it as a play, and it was at a reading at the Pleasance theatre that film director Tom Hooper’s mother spotted its potential and the rest as they say is history. So, it never actually made it into a theatre but striking while the iron is hot, Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre have mounted this premiere production of the show, starring Charles Edwards and Jonathan Hyde, which will undertake a short tour of the country in the coming months.
Seidler drew on his own experience, as a boy with a stammer who was inspired by the success of King George VI in overcoming his own stammer, to pursue telling this story but was only granted permission to access much of the primary research material after the death of the Queen Mother, who did not want the film made in her lifetime. So we follow Bertie, the second son, as he struggles to deal with his stammer at a time when the public profile of the Royal Family was increasing exponentially with the advent of radio. His meeting with unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue sets him on the difficult journey of trying to conquer his deep-seated issues, all the while dealing with the unfolding scandal of his older brother’s affair with Wallis Simpson and the constitutional crisis it incurs. Oh, and war is approaching too.
Charles Edwards invests Bertie with just the right level of aristocratic diffidence to mark him as completely separate from the ‘common man’, yet tempered with a humanity that marks him as something much more than an arrogant toff. And Emma Fielding pairs with him beautifully as Elizabeth, haughty but not unhumourous as she sees the benefits her husband is reaping from the maverick methods. Jonathan Hyde likewise pitches his performance just right as the unrepentant Antipodean, and there’s a great deal of humour that emerges from their interactions.
The main deviation from the film is in the enhancing of the role of Myrtle, Lionel’s wife. There are no children in the play and so all his home interactions are with his wife and this leads to an interesting development of tension as she is homesick for Australia and her goodwill in letting Logue pursue his fruitless acting dreams is wearing substantially thin. Charlotte Randle brings great character to this no-nonsense woman and proves exceptionally moving.
Elsewhere though, the play eschews the opportunity to delve deeper into character, especially amongst the supporting cast. David, the future Edward VIII, is sidelined which is a real shame as Daniel Betts bring a keenly watchable swagger and the relationship between the brothers is one which promises much yet is only flirted with. Wallis Simpson doesn’t even get a line, though Lisa Baird demonstrates some nifty footwork and whilst admittedly the abdication crisis is only part of the larger picture here, Seidler could have built them into the play more effectively. Cameos elsewhere work a little better: Ian McNeice’s Churchill and Michael Feast’s Archbishop of Canterbury pop up regularly to pass wry comment on the action, as does David Killick’s Baldwin earlier on and Joss Ackland’s irascible George V fits in well.
Adrian Noble directs with clarity – cheeky opening scene notwithstanding – and a careful sense of pace. He deals well with the changing rhythms, many scenes are very short and so he uses the revolve of Anthony Ward’s design to swiftly move around and keep a subtle energy about proceedings. Occasionally it gets a little busy – the walking around the circle grows a little tired as did the repeated use of videos of crowds – but the giant picture frame that forms the main set is effectively used. Noble does overstep the mark a little by aiming for a cinematic sweep of emotion by soundtracking the key speeches with orchestral strings. This calls to mind unnecessary comparisons with the film but also undermines Edwards a little, he is patently a good enough actor to move us with words alone and so these scenes end up feeling a little hollow.
And that was my main problem with the play in the end, it didn’t really move me or stir much emotion, no matter how strong the performances. The structure of the play doesn’t really build up to a crescendo in either half, rather there’s the sense of moving relentlessly through history instead of a personal story being illuminated or a satisfying piece of drama being created. Maybe having watched the film recently and not enjoying it as much as the first time coloured my view; and recognising so many of the lines repeated word for word robbed a little of the spontaneity of the experience of live theatre. But whereas I’m not sure it’s a story that bears re-watching particularly well, the audience in Guildford were extremely enthusiastic and received it extremely well.