Monday, 3 June 2019

REVIEW: The Audience at the Nuffield Southampton Theatres

Peter Morgan's fascinating play which imagines the conversations between the Queen and her Prime Ministers in her weekly meetings was first staged in 2013 and revived in 2015 with the removal of James Callaghan and added audiences with Tony Blair and David Cameron. So it is very interesting to see the first regional production at the NST city theatre in the very month that her thirteenth Prime Minister resigned from office. 

Sam Hodges, the artistic director of the NST directs the play and makes some bold staging decisions with his designer Rosanna Vize to emphasise the nature of their relationships. The traverse stage ensures that we constantly sense the feeling the protagonists must have of always being under watchful scrutiny and the travelator means the Queen is faced in her private audience room with a conveyor belt of Ministers going back to her first in 1953, Winston Churchill. He also cast one actor, Paul Kemp, in all the male Prime Minsters to emphasise that they are almost interchangeable as each deals with the crisis of the day. They then dress the stage as if we are in a fluorescent lit museum. This fresh new staging while interesting is at times distracting from the excellent central performances.

The success of the production is built on the brilliant writing of Peter Morgan which not only easily incorporates historical events, adds great humour and mostly shows the human relationship between Queen and the leaders of her Government but also on the extraordinary performances of Faye Castelow as Elizabeth and Paul Kemp as the PM's. We see her visibly age through subtle physical changes and reveal how she feels about each person through the simplest of looks and movements. It is a remarkable carefully studied and controlled performance which captures the essence of the woman who complains of being seen as "a postage stamp with a pulse". 

Kemp gets a bit more assistance in creating the style and personality of each PM. He is excellent as the reluctant John Major who opens the play and returns to discuss the crisis over Charles and Diana and the decommissioning of the Britannia. He captures wonderfully Harold Wilson in three cleverly written scenes which are touching and powerful. He embodies the authority of Winston Churchill even as he is hanging on to power. There is real tension between them when Eden is caught out by the Queen over the Suez crisis. The scenes with Cameron, Blair and Brown are less successful reflecting their timing in less pivotal moments in her reign and their weaker personalities. 

Of course no review of Ministers would be complete without an appearance by Maggie Thatcher played by Lizzie Hopley who captures her confrontational style perfectly but is hampered by the insistence of setting much of the scene on the travelator which is distracting and restrictive. The writing is confrontational enough that merely by circling each other on the dais of the private audience room the sense of a boxing match could have been achieved more elegantly. 

There is good support from Sharon Singh as the Queen's equerry and dresser who sets the scene and quietly observes the passing of Ministers and on press night Fay Burwell as the young Elizabeth reflecting on the impact her coronation had on her life.

It was a brilliant stroke of planning to schedule this modern classic at this time and the casting of Castelow and Kemp ensures the clever writing is delivered perfectly. It is too be hoped that it is a commercial success for the new theatre and the theatre audiences are motivated to go see it for the reassurance that Queen provides that Brexit is just one more crisis that the country will survive whoever is Prime Minister! Although it does leave you wondering over the future of our democracy when the one constant of our lifetime is no longer there.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Front Stalls | Price of Ticket: £30
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