An ‘Audience’ with the queen

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Nicky McDonnell and Evie Graham Jewett as Queen Elizabeth II and Young Elizabeth. (Photo by Kyle Reardon)
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Jordan Wright | Jordan@WhiskandQuill.com

The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of playwright Peter Morgan’s “The Audience” may be the closest we’ll get to Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle and an audience with the Queen of England.  But no worries, as the Brits say. This play will give you an insider’s peek, at least an imagined one, at Britain’s ruling monarch and the stream of prime ministers she faced down for more than half a century.

Queen Elizabeth II (played exquisitely by Nicky McDonnell) has welcomed 13 British prime ministers to her private audience room for weekly tête-á-têtes since her coronation in 1953 – though “The Audience” was written before Theresa May became PM in 2016. There they would bring her up to speed on the affairs of state, and, just as often, their personal and professional travails. And because England enjoys a constitutional monarchy, the queen must limit her responses to sage advice and a spot of whiskey. She must receive the heads of both the Labour Party as well as the Conservatives and play her hand judiciously. 

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote in “Henry IV.”  It’s an excellent primer on diplomacy and restraint and a far cry from the monarchy’s sweeping powers from Ye Olde Medieval Ages.

Director Ruben Vellekoop has assembled a fine cast to depict the queen’s seminal moments with some of England’s best known prime ministers – from Winston Churchill (Robert Heinly), Anthony Eden (Robert Heinly), Harold Wilson (Will Cooke), Margaret Thatcher (Janette Moman), John Major (Brian Lyons-Burke) and Tony Blair (Richard Isaacs) to Gordon Brown (Kirk Lambert) and David Cameron (Richard Isaacs) with Paul Donahoe as the queen’s equerry and witness to palace gossip, deliverer of both bad and glad tidings and announcer of her august guests.

For you Anglophiles keeping track of the PMs of the period, Attlee, Douglas-Home, Edward Heath and James Callaghan are not represented.  They just didn’t make the cut.  Too dull, perhaps.

Queen Elizabeth would be a tough role for any actress (Dame Helen Mirren starred in “The Audience” in 2013 at the Gielgud Theatre in London and later in New York in 2015), but McDonnell is clearly up to the task. She brings both intimacy and an incisively dry humor, while maintaining the regal haughtiness the role demands. When Major admits, “I never thought I’d win,” she replies coolly, “Why don’t you resign?” Touché, Queenie!

You’ll feel like an insider watching Morgan’s imagined queen justify her role as monarch of Great Britain despite mounting resistance to the monarchy and pressure from her citizenry to modernize. Watch for Janette Moman who inhabits the feisty “Iron Lady” Thatcher as she goes toe-to-toe with the unflappable queen, making for some delicious and snappy repartee and spot on pacing. Ditto for the rest of the cast including the adorable Evie Graham Jewett who plays Elizabeth as a child and nails some lengthy monologues.

Lighting effects by Ken and Patti Crowley lend drama to the stately meet-and-greets and costumes by Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword reflect the queen’s penchant for matchy-matchy ensembles. Another clever touch is Ken Brown’s revolving stage that allows everyone to enter and exit with graceful sangfroid.

Recommended for all Anglophiles and royals watchers.

Through March 17 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

Jordan Wright writes about food, spirits, travel, theatre and culture. Visit her website at www.whiskandquill.com or email her at Jordan@WhiskandQuill.com

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1 COMMENT

  1. The 1st Earl Attlee left the primership in October of 51, about 4 months before Her Majesty became Queen, her first 4 PM’s from 1952-64 were all Tories, Churchill, Eden, MacMallian and Home. That would be why Attlee isn’t in the show as Wilson was her first Labour and favorite PM.