Having not seen the film “The King’s Speech” I was not sure what to expect from the stage play, and to be honest, I was expecting something rather factual and dull. I could not have been more wrong. This is a story full of drama and humour and a perfect example of how sometimes an ordinary person in the right place at the right time can have a pivotal effect on the way history plays out
Writer David Seidler (himself a childhood stammerer) has done a remarkable job in “humanising” the Royal Household of the time covering the Silver Jubilee in 1935 of King George V, his death in 1936 and the scandal leading to the abdication speech of Edward VIII which ultimately forced the completely unready Duke of York to become King George VI and the event that lead him to make his wartime “King’s Speech”. It was widely known at the time that the Duke of York was a poor public speaker due to his stammer, but no one was that worried as it was his older brother who would be King. As the current Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII was a very polished public speaker and a hugely popular figure with the public. “Bertie” had never been considered or trained for “Kingship”, just a discreet side role in the family business.
There are really only two principal characters in this story and for this play to work on stage these two actors have to work well off one another or everything is over before it starts. Fortunately, we have two very experienced performers here – Raymond Coulthard as King George VI (Bertie) and Jason Donovan as the unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue. The added fact that Logue was Australian makes this part pretty much perfect casting for Jason.
There is a lot of gentle humour here between the two characters as two worlds collide. We have the Duke of York meeting pretty much for the first time in his life someone outside the immediate world of the Royal offices and a not disrespectful, but certainly not “Royalty reverent”, Australian being forced by circumstances to work together and eventually become friends.
Jason Donovan and Raymond Coulthard are exceptional here together and watching them as they portray one of the most unlikely friendships in recent British history is a pleasure to watch.
There are really nice character performances from everyone tonight. Claire Lams (Queen Elizabeth), Felicity Houlbrooke (Wallis Simpson) and William Hoyland (George V/Stanley Baldwin). Two other notable performances tonight are from Nicolas Blane (Winston Churchill) and Martin Turner (Archbishop Cosmo Lang). Surprisingly, these two at times make a great gentle comedy double act.
This is just one of those times at the theatre when you are watching a gentle human interest story and do not notice how quickly time is passing. This is a gentle look into a world of “protected Royalty” that few outsiders ever get to glimpse.
What is important to remember though is that good as this story is, it is only possible to tell this one from the historical point of looking back with information available to us now that was not known to the general public at the time. Although not a state secret, the role of Lionel Logue in helping the future King was known only to a few people in an “inner circle” and many of the issues surrounding The Prince of Wales as soon to be King Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson and their friendships and meetings with others – especially meetings with Hitler -were certainly not public knowledge. In fact, some of this information only became available when some documents reached their 50 year closure limits. The actual Royal accounts of some of the issues in this story are still not public documents.
Often in history, it is the ordinary person who gets overlooked, and Lionel Logue was just that, an ordinary man, but he helped a totally unprepared for the role man take on the completely unexpected role of King at a time when the country was facing one of its greatest challenges. King George VI was the man who took Britain through the dark days of World War II and out into the new post war world. Lionel Logue was the man who helped give him the confidence to fill that role.
Often in any stage work, the technical people get overlooked and here that would be a mistake as a very simple but effective stage set and imaginative lighting play a big part in bringing this story to life. Everything on stage takes place against a background of an expensive wood panelled room that is semi-circular. The panels when needed become doors, and interiors of the doors set the scene at times for different rooms. Clever timing and removal / addition of room settings make this an amazingly effective use of limited stage space. Set and costume design are by Tom Piper and Lighting design is by Oliver Penwick.
Another nice touch is that Lionel Logue makes model aeroplanes. They are hanging from his office ceiling when we meet him, and at the end as The King makes his wartime speech these planes descend into view again.
It is however nice to read in the programme that although The Queen Mother/former Queen Elizabeth gave her permission for this story to be told that her wishes that it not be done during her lifetime have been respected by the author.
Review by Tom King