Monday, 30 November -0001

The King's Speech

It won’t leave you speechless, but Bertie’s story still works on stage

Written by Robert Gore-Langton
Robert-Gore-Langton-176If you saw the Oscar-winning film, then the stage version of The King’s Speech is much the same only with added politics and more context. It’s about the future George VI. Suffering from a debilitating stammer, he goes to see a Harley Street specialist called Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor turned speech therapist. The play rests on Logue’s steadfast refusal to grovel to his VIP client, whom he calls ‘Bertie’. Bertie – brother to Edward VIII – is for his part barely able to stand his cocksure colonial tutor, who has little regard for his client’s royal status. But together they must crack the stammering – and they eventually do.

Whereas in the movie Colin Firth gave us a bad-tempered, self-effacing duke who was lumbered with his royal duties, here Raymond Coulthard gives us a rather more glamorous figure. His confident body language is at odds with his traumatised stammer, and I never quite got used to the performance. Showbiz veteran Jason Donovan, however, proves a very plausible Logue, downplaying his own Australian accent as if he were trying to fit into British society. One of Logue’s characteristics, played up here, was his secret desire to become an actor. We see him at various points going off to theatre auditions, reciting Shakespeare rather badly and meeting with rejection. Donovan is excellent at being a terrible classical actor, and his past in Neighbours and various musicals seems to be rather appropriate.

Logue has to contend not just with crosspatch Bertie, but with his wife Elizabeth (Claire Lams), the future Queen Mother, here depicted as a doughty if charmless woman who sounds like Margo from The Good Life. Meanwhile, his wife Myrtle (Katy Stephens) hates London and yearns to go home, and it is she who sounds by far the most Australian of the two.

David Seidler’s play includes a fair bit of the bitter politics of the abdication crisis. Much of the territory covered here is like a potted version of the 1978 TV series Edward & Mrs Simpson. A grey, unforgiving King George V – who as a truly terrible parent must take much of the blame for Bertie’s stammer and chronic lack of confidence – is played by William Hoyland, who also doubles up as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. A Billy Bunterish Churchill (Nicholas Blane) has a significant role, as do the Nazi-sympathising playboy Edward VIII (Jamie Hinde) and the creepy Archbishop of Canterbury (Martin Turner), who can’t abide Logue’s influence on the new monarch.

Despite the odd anachronism – the Archbishop would never have said ‘Can you give us some space?’ and Churchill would have used a different word for ‘bisexual’ – this remains a great story in a modest production. It may on one level be about the nation in a historic moment of jeopardy, but at heart it’s a simple human story about a regal stammerer who escaped his own private hell with, irony of ironies, the compassionate help of a republican Aussie.

Touring the UK until 6 June:

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