The King’s Speech, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – reviewFebruary 13th, 2012
by Henry Hitchings
Before it graced the big screen, The King’s Speech was, briefly, a play. A reading at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington brought David Seidler’s piece to the attention of film director Tom Hooper. But only now, four Oscars later, is it returning to the stage.
Few people will need telling that the story deals with King George VI and his battle to overcome his stammer – or that he’s aided in this by Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, an obscure figure here presented as a hero.
We begin before George (otherwise known as Bertie) is on the throne, and see how his difficulties in articulating himself hamper his ability to address the nation. The play emphasises his duty to emerge from the shadow of his insensitive brother Edward VIII, who is consumed by two passions: for the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and for German fascism.
In Adrian Noble’s lucid production the central performances don’t eclipse the memory of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in the film. This is relevant, as the audience for the stage version is surely people who have seen the film, rather than those who haven’t. Yet the relationship is movingly portrayed. Charles Edwards is superb as the King, suggesting his humanity even as he conveys his mix of irascibility and diffidence.
Jonathan Hyde is wholly convincing as the unconventional Logue.
Emma Fielding is an elegant presence as King George’s wife Elizabeth, and Charlotte Randle makes a keen impression as Logue’s wife, Myrtle, in a role more substantial than it was on film.
There are memorable cameos from Michael Feast as the apparently conceited Archbishop of Canterbury, Ian McNeice as a slippery-seeming Winston Churchill, and Joss Ackland as a grand, reactionary George V.
Less welcome are the sweeps of strings that accentuate moments of high emotion. But there’s a neat design by Anthony Ward, which makes extensive use of a screen that’s sometimes a partition and sometimes a mirror. A double revolve keeps the action on the move, and projections by Jon Driscoll help create a sense of period.
While it’s easy to quibble about whether a stage version of The King’s Speech is necessary, the results are satisfying. The production is touring at present; having started in Guildford, it’s off to Nottingham, Bath, Brighton, Richmond and Newcastle. A West End run looks inevitable.
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