The Audience

Written on February 10th, 2017

The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Fiction or Fact?

The Audience is a fascinating play about the weekly meetings Queen Elizabeth has had with the various prime ministers since her coronation.  Of course, anything said in these weekly “audiences” between these two leaders of Great Britain is held in strict confidence, so we have no idea how accurate this play is.  Nevertheless, the dialogue is inspiring, ingenious and entertaining.

But playwright Peter Morgan has had great success writing about the Royals – his movie The Queen won many accolades for Helen Mirren, and he currently has a TV series The Crown, among many other successful works.  In The Audience, now on stage at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, he has woven together a captivating tale, with flashbacks to a young Elizabeth, giving us his view of the Queen and her relationships with the different prime ministers she has had to deal with since her coronation, starting with the inimitable Winston Churchill.

The dynamics change with each prime minister.  Rather than pity the worried John Major, she bucks him up for the job.  Anthony Eden goes against her wishes and joins the French in a pre-arranged coalition in the Suez crisis.  We, like the Queen, are charmed by Harold Wilson – he returns at three different stages in his career.  We see him as a younger man with an amazing photographic memory, rhyming off 66 decimal points of pi.  Later he returns, confessing his fear in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  We learn that her husband, Prince Philip has no use for Tony Blair. And while the Queen has always been careful not to make any comments about any of her prime ministers, she is confronted by a very angry Margaret Thatcher when some of the Queen’s unflattering thoughts regarding the Iron Lady were leaked to the press.

Fiona Reid is outstanding as the Queen, on the stage for almost the entire production.  As the various vignettes change back and forth in time, she ages perfectly or returns to her youth.  Her poses, handbag on her arm, portray the Queen with extraordinary detail. 

Nigel Bennett is impressive as Harold Wilson, also in the various stages of his life.   As well, Kate Hennig is remarkable as the angry and tough Margaret Thatcher.  Anthony Bekenn is something of a narrator as the Queen’s Equerry, bringing each prime minister into the special room for the audience and telling a bit of history.  The various cast members provide extremely convincing prime ministers, each offering a fascinating piece of history in this world created by Peter Morgan.  (A total of eight different actors play the eight prime ministers covered in this play, out of the total of 13 prime ministers since the Queen’s coronation.  There are 15 in the cast, including the Queen, the young Elizabeth, the prime ministers and royal servants.)

Credit goes to Christopher Newton for holding our interest through all the different circumstances and ensuring each prime minister’s individuality.

This play provides much to think about – constantly running through my mind were questions about the verity of the stories.  It would be so interesting to know how much of this came from Morgan’s imagination, and how much was based on tidbits of information he was able to find.

The Audience continues with eight shows a week at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto until February 26.  Call Ticket King 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit for tickets.

Photo: Evan Buliung as John Major and Fiona Reid as the Queen.  Photo by Dylan Hewlett.

The Audience
By Peter Morgan
Directed by Christopher Newton
Performed by Fiona Reid et al.
Produced by David Mirvish, with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
The Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
January 17 to February 26, 2016
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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