Writer: David Seidler
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Set around the time of the abdication crisis of the mid-thirties, The King’s Speech tells the story of how an ill-prepared stammerer became king and, against the odds, a respected and loved figure during wartime. On the surface, it is just that – as writer David Seidler says, ‘[it], really, is two men in a room’, two men who grow to respect one another and to become friends. But it is so much more than that: it shows the changing face of the country and the monarchy. Previously, kings had been remote, protected from many of the realities of everyday living by privilege and protocol. This is illustrated in a beautifully choreographed opening scene reminiscent of silent films in which no fewer than two valets, with no hint of irony, completely dress Bertie – at that point Duke of York – from underwear up, while a maid hovers with tea and toast. However, technological advances in the 20th Century put the royal family under increasingly close scrutiny and they were expected to be seen in newsreels and to be heard on the wireless. Bertie’s developing relationship with speech therapist, Lionel Logue, is this process in miniature. Logue is a bluff Australian who discovered an ability to help stammerers by chance, using it as a sideline while seeking acting jobs. Fortunately for Bertie, Logue is a truly dreadful actor!
Raymond Coulthard’s Bertie is terrific. His stammer is entirely believable, well-observed and never descends to a comedic device – though there is plenty pf comedy in the evening. Bertie has been bullied, psychologically, by both his father and elder brother, David, later to become Edward VIII, over his inability to form words. Indeed, although the supporting cast have only small parts, William Hoyland’s George V is wonderfully unsympathetic and lacking in understanding while Jamie Hinde’s David is thoroughly unpleasant, teasing ‘B-b-b-bertie’ without mercy while seeking his own hedonistic thrills with, among others, a certain American divorcee. A well painted nasty piece of work, indeed. Clinging to the world he knows, Bertie finds Logue challenging and infuriating at first, gradually softening until he is able, in a major breach of protocol, (and tear-jerking finale) to remove his glove to shake Logue’s hand and declare him to be his friend.
It is the relationship between Bertie and Logue, played by Jason Donovan, that is at the centre. Donovan’s portrayal of Logue is a revelation. He never wavers from his beliefs, but draws Bertie in to his world, and allows Bertie to become so much more human than his father or brother. Donovan describes himself as ‘an actor who sings … a confident actor’ and his portrayal of Logue, like that of Coulthard’s Bertie, is a masterclass. Bertie is lonely, his only real friend his wife, Elizabeth. Claire Lams plays her with real love shining through their every interaction, seeking only what is best for Bertie. Her well-documented dislike for Wallis Simpson is also clear in their few, very brief and frosty, encounters. Her relationship with Logue’s wife, Myrtle, (Katy Stephens) mirrors that of their husbands, although one can’t imagine Elizabeth ever joining Myrtle to shout profanities.
One cannot hep but get behind Bertie. When he gives his first major speech of the war, with Logue at his side, the audience falls silent, totally wrapped up in the moment, willing him on. The suspension of disbelief is complete in a moving climax, the genuine feeling of relief at his success among the audience palpable.
Woven around this are snippets of politics and events from the outside world, brought to us by well observed vignettes from Nicholas Blane’s Churchill, Martin Turner’s Archbishop of Canterbury and William Hoyland doubling up as Stanley Baldwin. They stand largely outside the action, but add depth to the events going on.
Roxanna Silbert’s flawless direction ensures a smooth running, if rollercoaster, journey, toying with our emotions throughout. Tom Piper’s set, apparently a large empty space surrounded by wooden panelling, is superb and perfectly enables the action with its many doors and multiple levels that seem to appear from nowhere, allowing scene changes to happen almost imperceptibly.
So a triumph for Silbert and the cast, an uplifting play that will tinker with emotions and have you almost cheering by the end, rooting for the underdog, then later, and on reflection, asking, ‘Who was the underdog?’
Photo: Hugo Glendenning | Runs until: 7th March