Writer: Nichola McAuliffe
Director: Hannah Eidinow
Reviewer: Luke Walker
2012 was a year in which The Queen could not hide. The Olympics and Diamond Jubilee celebrations thrust our reserved monarch under the spotlight and Britain basked in a wave of summer patriotism and royalist flag waving perhaps not seen in sixty years. Nichola McAuliffe’s new play, Maurice’s Jubilee, was timed almost to perfection as it rode this wave, premièring at the Edinburgh Festival in August.
Retired jeweller, Maurice, and his wife, Helena, are reaching the end of their lives. Once wealthy and prosperous they have fallen on hard times and have down-sized from bijou in Barnes to a bungalow in Penge. But even more pressing is Maurice’s health. Riddled with inoperable brain tumours and with only weeks to live his saviour, in the guise of palliative care nurse Katie, arrives to live with the couple and care for Maurice for the limited time he has left. Lovingly called “The Angel of Death” Katie soon learns that Helena hasn’t been the only woman in Maurice’s life over the past 66 years – and the ‘other woman’ is The Queen! Entrusted with the crown jewels the night before the Coronation in 1952, Maurice claims he and the soon to be crowned sovereign spent a precious few hours together, fell in love a little, and promised to keep and appointment to meet again sixty years to the day. Will Maurice live long enough to greet Her Majesty and offer her tinned salmon sandwiches? And will our 86 year old Queen keep her promise?
Nichlola McAuliffe’s comedy drama is written with deftness and touches of beautiful poetry. There is more than a touch of gallows humour littered throughout the whole piece. Maurice tackles his health with a no nonsense approach. He is straight talking as he describes himself as a “cul-de-sac” and is reciprocated by Katie’s matter of fact quips when she claims that “It’s not too late to start smoking again”. The wife, Helena, on the other hand, doesn’t share this approach to death as she sits darning Maurice’s socks despite having a drawer full.
There is always the danger of an intimate piece of theatre such as this being swallowed in the vastness of the Opera House’s stage and auditorium. But it is credit to the writing and acting that there was never any danger of this. The towering Julian Glover held the audience spellbound for 15 minutes during an Alan Bennett like monologue recounting his brief but life-changing liaison with the young Queen – almost a perfect play encapsulated in another. Sheila Reid’s boasting Helena occasionally felt a little over the top but was steadfast in her portrayal of a wife who could no longer control the circumstances around her. And the chirpy nurse Katie (played by Nichola McAuliffe herself) was instantly empathetic and a delight to watch. Much has been said of many actresses’ portrayal of The Queen in recent years but McAuliffe’s embodiment is truly terrific. Like Maurice says “She sounds just like she does at Christmas!”
The play does have a few minor flaws. Questions surrounding the fallibility of Maurice’s memory aren’t quite explored and we are never quite sure whether Helena lives in her own bubble of self-denial or she is genuinely unaware of the state of Maurice’s health. The play has been expanded from ninety minutes to a full length piece and there was a couple of moments when this elongation is felt. The ‘twist’ towards the conclusion is more that a little obvious and occasionally strays into the ridiculous. However, this does not detract to the pleasure and genuine warmth that exudes off the stage.
I heard a couple describe the play on the way out of the theatre as “a nice pair of slippers”. There is a familiarity and cosiness to the piece but it is shot through with sparkling dialogue, especially between Maurice and Katie, laugh out loud moments, and an acceptance of what life is and what it can hold. McAuliffe teaches us an old adage that despite the riches we can accumulate it is the memories that are the jewels of a life.