It’s difficult not to approach the stage version of David Seidler’s play without thinking of its Oscar-magnet screen incarnation. Chances are most of the audience will have seen Colin Firth’s award-winning performance as George VI – known to his family as Bertie – but thanks to the play’s ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ opening gambit, a distance is immediately created between stage and screen, leaving the audience free to recall the film without constantly comparing and contrasting, and allowing room for some superb leading performances.
Here, Charles Edwards plays Bertie, while Jonathan Hyde takes the role of his earthy Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Edwards in particular is powerful and deeply touching in the role. A stammer is easy to ham on stage, but Edwards has studied his subject well and is utterly compelling. Bertie’s tic isn’t just confined to his diaphragm; Edwards uses his whole body to play out the reluctant King’s convulsive fear of public speaking. Far from portraying a simple B-b-b-bertie choking on his plosives, Edwards’ performance shows a complex, duty-conscious man whose only way to express his personality – his voice – is throttled by little checks and hesitations.
Hyde, too, is convincing as Logue, a failed actor and unqualified therapist who couldn’t give tuppence for royal trappings. Logue’s lèse-majesté exposes the fiction behind Bertie’s supposed royal might; as he orders the king to shout expletives and vowel sounds, Logue is in charge and Bertie is just another man with a stutter. This is reinforced symbolically later, as Logue takes a seat in the Coronation Chair while Bertie rails against his own powerlessness. As a plot device this role reversal could be unrealistically stark, but Seidler maintains frisson by emphasising Logue’s place as a commoner struggling against a class-obsessed Establishment. There’s no coup here.
As Bertie and Logue get closer Seidler does his best to portray extreme class divisions through Queen Elizabeth and Logue’s wife, Myrtle. However, although Emma Fielding’s Queen Elizabeth is deliciously snippy with a silent Wallis Simpson, Charlotte Randle’s Myrtle hovers a little too close to soap opera caricature. Logue’s confused sense of duty to the King frustrates a homesick Myrtle’s wish to return to Australia, but at times it feels as though her anguish has more to do with selfishness than class sensibilities. Here one senses a missed opportunity to explore the Logues’ unprivileged position as displaced colonials in a little more depth.
Elsewhere, Adrian Noble’s production suffers a little from overplayed light relief. Michael Feast’s creepy Archbishop of Canterbury, though entertaining, strays uncomfortably close to pantomime villainy as he proposes a clerical dictatorship in place of the stammering king. Here he is checked a little by Ian McNeice as a blustery Winston Churchill – but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the great man is involved just because you’d expect him to be. McNeice gives a fine performance, but is essentially confined to delivering leaden exposition and bitchy bons mots.
Despite the play’s faults, however, it delivers an unflinchingly honest analysis of the pre-war monarchy, reminding us that behind the gilt lurked a bleakly unlovable Royal Family. A hectoring King George V is euthanised so that his death makes the morning papers. Bertie’s mentally handicapped little brother dies at fourteen, unloved and hidden from view. And Bertie’s stammer is traced back to a cold, loveless childhood, dominated by his bullying father. Seidler thus neatly turns one man’s handicap into the high point of a whole family’s dysfunction.
This critique of monarchy’s gilded cage rescues what might otherwise be a fairly pedestrian triumph-over-adversity outing. It’s not perfect, but The King’s Speech packs a powerful emotional punch, aided by some strikingly good performances. Perhaps it isn’t really necessary to pipe Nimrod over the King’s final eve-of-war speech, but by giving Charles Edwards a chance to play out Bertie’s progress, it brings an entirely good natured and entertaining production to a rousing climax.
The King’s Speech will open at Wyndham’s Theatre on the 27th March 2012