When this play first appeared in the West End back in 2012 it was cynically hanging on the coat tails of the hugely successful film that had just made a big splash at the Oscars the previous year with a Best Actor gong for Colin Firth as well as winning Best Film. The speed with which the show was executed so quickly afterwards somehow took away some of its authenticity as a piece in its own right. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good show and Charles Edwards as the king was brilliant. However it did struggle to find an audience, the public psyche perhaps by that stage being all done with the subject.
In this new touring version some years later it feels as though we are in a better place to resurrect our thoughts and feelings on a relatively recent and very important part of the history of the British monarchy. Yes of course there is something very domestic about a man bravely battling his terrible stammer but the historical context can’t be ignored. The abdication of his brother not only rocked the royal family but the entire country. With Edward’s relationship with the likes of Hitler we could be sitting in a very different United Kingdom right now had he not stepped down, but the pressure that was brought to bear on the desperately ill at ease George must have been terrible. He rose to the challenge however and became one of the stoic symbols of our nation as WW2 raged and shifted the path of the monarchy seismically.
All of this is only touched on in David Seidler’s play however which does tend to focus on the domestic. Finding the human path is fine but sometimes feels as though the consequence is not fully explored of the subject matter at hand. This means that the intense pressure that George is feeling is at times lost. With only brief glimpses of the big hitters of the time such as Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin and Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang the play struggles to find its historical weight.
Raymond Coulthard plays King George, or Bertie as he is known to his family. Coulthard seems to struggle to find the man behind the crown. Looking good in the ornate uniform is not enough for him to become the King and whilst performing with great poise and elegance somehow lacks the quality to make him regal. His stammering is subtle and well observed, although is never really uncomfortable to watch. The problem with Bertie’s stammer was he didn’t really suffer with it in the private confines of the family. The paradox then is that so much of the play is in private this makes for a lack of stammering in a show that is ultimately about stammering. I remember when watching both performances by Firth and Edwards in this role desperately and uncomfortably willing them to make it to the end of every sentence. Not so here which makes for a less absorbing performance.
The surprise of the night is undoubtedly the familiar Jason Donovan as Australian maverick speech therapist Lionel Logue. The unusual bond formed between Logue and the King couldn’t have been written better in a work of fiction. In terms of age and nationality Donovan couldn’t be better qualified for the role. It doesn’t end there though. Donovan gives an easy and assured performance that convinces and shows the charisma that could charm a King. There is a gravitas and a real acting ability here in Donovan that I have not seen in him before and proves him worthy of more meaty roles like this in the future and may lead him down a less musical theatre route in future.
The cold and rather unwelcoming set by Tom Piper does nothing to drive the story or to evoke any magnificence when supposedly in regal surrounds. It is mainly with the clever lighting of Oliver Fenwick that we at least get any sense of the grandeur of Westminster Abbey in the final scenes. These are only minor irritations though in an otherwise decent enough production of a decent enough play.