Mad King George III has just left the Apollo theatre, but now George VI has arrived at Wyndham’s with a different problem.
Following the death of King George V, his eldest son Edward is next in line to the throne but his forced abdication means that the thoroughly unprepared Prince Albert – or Bertie to his family – is about to take over. The trouble is Bertie’s stammer means that he can hardly get a word out, and what good is a king if he can’t speak?
Colin Firth is always a hard act to follow but never more so than after his Oscar-winning performance in Tom Hooper’s 2010 film in which he plays the stuttering monarch. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to step into such highly acclaimed royal shoes, but then Charles Edwards came along. His moving, at times hilarious, performance, brings Bertie to the stage in a performance that makes you think Colin who?
It is unlikely that you will find a review of Adrian Noble’s production that doesn’t mention its multi-award-winning on-screen predecessor; after all, I am already guilty of that. But this is not merely a stage adaptation of a popular film. Firth and his cronies may have won our hearts first but David Seidler originally wrote The King’s Speech as a play, and a play it was always intended to be. This intention shines through during every moment of the production as the relationship between the actor and his audience becomes like a king to his nation. Okay, so the capacity of Wyndham’s theatre may not be anywhere near as great as the population of Britain in the 1930s, but as the jittering monarch steps up to the microphone together we wait in expectation for his forthcoming words.
This isn’t the only relationship that blossoms on Bertie’s journey to become an audible king. When formality gives in to friendship, a budding bromance forms between the monarch and his speech therapist-come-psychoanalyst Lionel Logue (Jonathan Hyde) who rather ironically given Hyde’s extensive acting career is also a failed actor. To passers-by outside Logue’s first floor window, the Royal’s all-singing, all-dancing solo act induced by his therapist’s unique techniques would seem more like a rehearsal for a bizarre kind of musical than the behaviour of a future king. Another double act emerges in the form of Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) and Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Feast), who together embody the humorous duo Little and Large, both in their comic performances and their distinctly different physical appearances.
Anthony Ward’s translucent rotating screen works beautifully to bring the characters to the fore while giving a sense of changing locations to an otherwise simple set. Jon Driscoll’s snippets of old film footage foreshadow the imminent arrival of television and allow the audience an insight into the decade’s political climate.
The star of the show, however, is undoubtedly Edwards with his emotive portrayal of the vulnerable king. As his words finally unite to form sentences, he addresses his people as a symbol of national unity in the face of the pending war, and given the standing ovation last night, his people were very much behind him.