'You'll enjoy an audience with the Queen' at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City

Ian Major playing Anthony Eden and Suzie Major as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience at the Barn Theatre in WGC.

Ian Major playing Anthony Eden and Suzie Major as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: Simon Parr

Tim Hardy reviews The Audience by Peter Morgan at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Amanda Sayers as Margaret Thatcher, Suzie Major as Queen Elizabeth II, and Mel Powell as Winston Churchill in The Audience

Amanda Sayers as Margaret Thatcher, Suzie Major as Queen Elizabeth II, and Mel Powell as Winston Churchill in The Audience, which can be seen at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: Simon Wallace / MeltingPot Pictures

I begin this review with something of a confession. I am not a particularly staunch royalist.

I’m not a Cromwellian kind of royal observer; I don’t spend my days in a darkened room plotting the destruction of the institution, watching documentaries on the collapse of other European royal lineages to satisfy my raging blood lust.

I just find it hard to fathom that people actually care. My life, I cannot help but feel, wouldn’t really be any different if the Royal Family was – whisper it quietly – abolished tomorrow. 

And so I approached The Audience, playing at the Barn Theatre until Saturday, November 20, with more than a pinch of trepidation.

The play, written by Peter Morgan and first performed in 2013, imagines the weekly unrecorded meetings the Queen holds with her Prime Minister, revealing her relationship with each.

My gag reflex was twitching. I expected the play to be a puff piece; a breathless celebration of our now longest-serving monarch, featuring an impossibly twinkly-eyed and hyper-kindly Queen Lizzy.  

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What I found instead was an interesting piece of character-led theatre, a kind of proto The Crown exploring Elizabeth’s shifting concerns and personality over a 60-year period from Churchill to Cameron.

All the big players, with a couple of notable exceptions, pop up.

Ian Major playing Anthony Eden and Suzie Major as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience at the Barn Theatre in WGC.

Ian Major playing Anthony Eden and Suzie Major as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: Simon Parr

There's Anthony Eden (Ian Major), popping a cheeky Benzedrine for his poor old nerves during the Suez Canal crisis.

Here comes John Major (Simon Parr) – I recognise those glasses! – initially cuddly but increasingly frosty as his position comes under threat and the Royal Family refuses to modernise.

Ah, Harold Wilson (Peter Sayers), warm and replete with glorious Huddersfield accent.

Ooh, that’s Margaret Thatcher (Amanda Sayers); yep, she’s as cruel and heartless here as in real life. No Tony Blair, though – thank God!

It’s surprisingly fun, a kind of whistle-stop tour through the modern political era with our girl Elizabeth the only constant.

All of the PMs are well-portrayed, their personalities truly distinct. I have it from a well-placed, semi-trusted source that the actors’ focus was on impression over true imitation; this can be seen on stage and was a wise move.

A special mention must go to Mel Powell, who pulls off that almost impossible of tasks: portraying Winston Churchill without either cruelly underselling it or turning into Churchill the Dog.

In just a couple of short scenes, Powell establishes his Churchill as Elizabeth's tutor, steeping her in the tradition of the monarch’s audience as the new Elizabethan age dawns.

His influence can be felt throughout the play, as Elizabeth decides which traditions she must respect and which can be cast aside.

Suzie Major's Queen Elizabeth is humorous and – do forgive me – real. Major handles the play’s non-linear structure deftly, adapting both her voice and mannerisms to portray the same character from the age of 25 to something approaching 90.

She invites audience sympathy without appealing for it, teasing out comedy in the Queen’s wry observations to ensure that – royalist or not – our loyalties lie with her for the play's duration.

Her interactions with Young Elizabeth (Tammy Wall) are particularly interesting, exploring the growing pains of a princess suddenly required to assume the role of monarch. 

Peter Morgan’s script is pacy, with each PM’s voice feeling well-realised. A few moments of dialogue do carry more than a whiff of exposition but this is, I suppose, inevitable in a play spanning more than 60 years of British political history.

Production and staging is, as ever at the Barn, immersive and appealing. The stage’s transformation to reflect Balmoral at the opening of Act Two is particularly impressive, with a genuinely beautiful painting of a stag setting the scene perfectly.

I’d recommend anybody with more than a passing interest in British politics to watch The Audience. With a strong cast, witty script and surprisingly multi-faceted protagonist, this is one you’ll enjoy whatever your view on the Royal Family.

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