Broadway Review: ‘The Audience’ Starring Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren, with Dylan Baker, Geoffrey Beevers, Michael Elwyn, Judith Ivey, Dakin Matthews, Richard McCabe, Rod McLachlan, Sadie Sink, Elizabeth Teeter, Rufus Wright.

Long live the Queen! Long live Queen Helen! Helen Mirren won an Oscar in 2007 for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth around the time of Princess Diana’s death in “The Queen.” It made a nice companion piece for the Emmy she’d won in 2005 for playing another British queen in the TV mini-series “Elizabeth I.” Maybe she’ll add a Tony to her collection for her triumphant return to Buckingham Palace in “The Audience,” Peter Morgan’s royally entertaining glimpse into the private weekly meetings at which the current Prime Minister brings the sitting monarch up to snuff on political affairs of state. 

Under the stylized helming of Stephen Daldry, who also directed the 2013 West End production, a stately Equerry (Geoffrey Beevers) steps forward to introduce each of the prime ministers who advised Queen Elizabeth over the sixty years of her reign. (A program insert offers an assist for American audiences who can’t quite place James Callaghan.)

Designer Bob Crowley’s imposing setting for these tête-à-têtes is the Audience Room in Buckingham Palace, a grandly scaled space framed by massive pillars and, through the illusion of forced perspective, giving onto a long corridor that leads to the Throne Room. This majestic space doesn’t exactly match up with the Equerry’s description of a less forbidding room painted in “duck-egg blue” and warmed by a fireplace. But it certainly conveys the sense of majesty that would intimidate many a brand new PM.

Morgan, who also penned the screenplay for “The Queen,” doesn’t keep to a chronological time span or pursue a dominant theme. The fundamental appeal for an audience is watching the various prime ministers display their goods for the Queen and observing Mirren’s subtle skills at adjusting her age, voice, physical presence and state of mind to reflect (or try to hide) her feelings about each of these politicians.

Mirren is positively endearing as the young Queen Elizabeth, eagerly addressing Sir Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews, eerily realistic) at her first audience with a list of informed and thoughtful questions about the state of the postwar Empire — only to be told rather brusquely, in one of the more riveting scenes in the play, that her role is to shut up and listen to him.

Over the years (and through a number of lightning-quick onstage costume and wig changes), Lilibet, as Churchill affectionately calls the young monarch, becomes a shrewd judge of character and adept at maintaining the rigidly noncommittal political stance expected of her. (“It is my duty not to have preferences,” she sharply reminds someone who thinks otherwise.) But the scribe does grant her a lot of (frankly, unconvincing) freedom to voice her private thoughts to her Prime Ministers and to favor one over another on a personal level.

As Morgan would have it, her favorite was the down-to-earth Labour Party leader Harold Wilson (an old dear, in Richard McCabe’s warm-hearted performance), which does seem likely, since she extended to him alone (aside from Churchill) the rare endorsement of inviting herself to dine with him at 10 Downing Street. Their scenes together are critical to this schematic play, because they lend it a tone of honest emotion.

Fully appreciating this need to move an audience, the scribe invents some otherworldly appearances by a young Lilibet (very nicely played by Elizabeth Teeter, who alternates in the role with Sadie Sink) to interact with and greatly humanize her older self.

So, yes, theatrical allowances are made for such injections of heart. Just the same, it’s hard to believe that any politician, even a softie like Harold Wilson, would make so free with the Queen as to tell her that “You’re one of us,” or to suggest that “There’s a good Labour lady in there.”

That does seem to be where Morgan is leading her, though, by allowing her to indiscreetly voice some strong political opinions that are very liberal, indeed. Since no records whatsoever are kept of these weekly briefings, there’s no way of knowing whether the Queen did, indeed, beg the imperious Sir Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn, an aristocrat down to his boots) not to go to war over the Suez Canal. Or try to stop Tony Blair (Rufus Wright) from sending an invading force into Iraq.

The real showdown, though, is between Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey), who slaps the monarch down like a naughty child when she makes a good case for sanctions against South Africa.  In theory and substance, this should be the strongest scene in the play.  But it’s painfully over-the-top dramatically and given a caricatured reading by Ivey, whose performance is as overdone as the ghastly fright-wig of the Iron Lady’s famous helmet-hair.

Although the level of realism fluctuates from meeting to meeting held in the Audience Room, the two most electrifying scenes in the play take place outside that room. The first is the extraordinary wartime radio address that the 14-year-old princess Elizabeth delivered in 1940 to the children of the commonwealth. The other is the fall-on-your-knees investiture scene at the end of Act I in which the 25-year-old Elizabeth is robed and anointed and crowned as Queen — “half human, half apostolic avenging angel,” as Morgan would have it.

At moments like this, we are all the adoring subjects of this Queen.

Popular on Variety

Broadway Review: 'The Audience' Starring Helen Mirren

Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 1,069 seats, $152 top. Opened March 8, 2015. Reviewed March 6. Running time: TWO HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Matthew Byam Shaw, Robert Fox, Andy Harries, Beverly Bartner, Scott M. Delman, Ed Mirvish Enterprises Ltd., Stephanie McClelland, MSG WLE, Jon B. Platt, Carole Shorenstein Hays, The Shubert Organization, and Alice Tulchin, with associate producers Nick Salmon, Nia Janis, Marieke Spencer, and Georgia Gatti, of a play in two acts by Peter Morgan.

Creative: Directed by Stephen Daldry. Sets, Rob Crowley; lighting, Rick Fisher; sound, Paul Arditti; original music, Paul Englishby; hair & makeup, Ivana Primorac; production stage manage, Jill Cordle.

Cast: Helen Mirren, with Dylan Baker, Geoffrey Beevers, Michael Elwyn, Judith Ivey, Dakin Matthews, Richard McCabe, Rod McLachlan, Sadie Sink, Elizabeth Teeter, Rufus Wright.

More Legit

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content