King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – Mon 18-Sat 23 May 2015
Two excellent central performances dominate The King’s Speech. The rest of the production, while always involving, does not quite hit the same heights.
David Seidler’s play is a reworking of his own screenplay for the hugely successful film about the Duke of York (later George VI) and his relationship with speech therapist Lionel Logue. As the Duke faces up to the problems caused by his errant brother Edward VIII, he also has to deal with a stammer that limits his public appearances.
The two men’s relationship is so central to the play that it is imperative to have two well-matched and skilful actors in the roles. This is where this touring production, by Chichester Festival Theatre and Birmingham Rep, scores heavily.
Raymond Coulthard’s George VI is a stiff-backed, repressed figure, plagued by doubts and struggling to face up to his duties. Coulthard does not have the matinee-idol attractiveness of Colin Firth, but gives the role real depth.
He is not afraid of appearing unsympathetic, being particularly good at displaying anger and vulnerability. His depiction of the stammer is utterly realistic, with any temptation to overplay it soundly resisted.
Jason Donovan, meanwhile, leaves any thoughts of Neighbours far behind with his performance as Lionel Logue. Best known recently for musicals, he shows himself to be a performer of versatility, humour and seemingly effortless charm, combining extremely well with Coulthard as the two men spar, bicker and eventually achieve a touching accord.
The scenes between the two of them have a dramatic tautness and deep humanity. However, they are so strong that much of the rest of the play seems to be an intrusion, rather than an amplification of the basic story.
Had audiences not been expecting to see a re-run of the hugely popular film, Seidler would have been well advised to reshape it as a two-hander.
Raymond Coulthard and Jason Donovan. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Other characters are sketchy compared to the central duo. Katy Stephens tries extremely hard as Logue’s wife Myrtle, while Claire Lams succeeds in finding some depth as Queen Elizabeth (better known in recent years as the Queen Mother). Many of the other performances are less successful.
Jamie Hinde’s Edward VIII is energetic but one-dimensional, while Nicholas Blane’s Churchill is an impersonation rather than an acting performance. He is not helped by the character constantly popping up in situations where he could never have been at the time, often delivering clunky and unconvincing exposition.
William Hoyland (Baldwin) and Martin Turner (Archbishop Lang) are similarly hamstrung by appearing as chorus figures, filling in political background that is, at best, largely unnecessary, and at worst deeply annoying.
Similarly, the constant parade of short scenes that works well on film merely breaks up the flow here; any time real dramatic tension is built up it is quickly dissipated. The worst example of this is when we are treated to two separate scenes of Logue auditioning for Shakespearean roles. The audience are already perfectly willing to believe he is a failed actor without seeing Donovan suddenly coming over all hammy. While this points up the success of the smooth, almost laid-back approach he takes during the rest of the evening, it is completely unnecessary.
Director Roxana Silbert manages to combine pathos and humour well, but never quite solves the problem of the interrupted narrative flow. She is not aided by Tom Piper’s peculiar set, which is certainly imposing but looks more like a hotel function suite than Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey.
Any fans of the film will be happy enough with such a solid and largely well-performed production, but the overall quality the two central performances deserve is not always in evidence.
Running time 2 hours 20 mins including interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Monday 18 – Saturday 23 May 2015
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Tickets and information from http://www.edtheatres.com/kingsspeech
The King’s Speech on tour:
Mon 18 – Sat 23 May
0131 529 6000
Tue 26 – Sat 30 May
0844 848 2700
Mon 1 – Sat 6 June
Hall for Cornwall