A magnificent war of words

king and Logue

Picture worth a thousand words: Raymond Coulthard (King George VI) and Jason Donovan (Lionel Logue). Pictures: Hugo Glendinning

The King’s Speech

Birmingham Rep

*****

IF you missed the film then don’t miss the play, and if you saw the film still don’t miss the play, and if you have no idea which film we are talking about, then you are in for a treat - this is simply glorious, wonderful theatre.

Every so often a production comes along where acting, lighting, sound and set combine to magically transport you to a different time in a different world and this Rep co-production manages it in seconds.

After the first stuttering, hesitant disaster of a speech by Prince Albert, Duke of York, to close the British Empire Exhibition, you are carried back to the 1920s and 30s. It is a time when Hitler is rising to power and a time when the heir to the thrown became enamoured with a certain Mrs Wallis Simpson, a Baltimore socialite, a divorcee who was still married to a second husband. Most damning of all she was a woman with a certain reputation for a life more tittle than title.

Such was the fear of scandal that when the King Edward VII was dying, but not quickly enough, he was euthanized to ensure his death would make The Times the following morning and not be left to the mercy of the more vulgar evening Presmyrtles who were less amenable to the establishment wishes and could well spill the beans on the now King Edward VIII’s right royal affair with a married divorcee.

The new King was friendly to Hitler, anti-semitic and with an open disdain for convention and the social mores of Court so when he proposed to the newly divorced, again, Mrs Simpson, his abdication was inevitable which brought his younger brother, Bertie, to the throne as George VI, a terrified king with a speech impediment.

Katy Stephens (Myrtle Logue) with Jason Donovan (Lionel Logue)

Which is where the tale of Lionel Logue comes in. Logue was a failed Australian actor who had set himself up as a speech therapist and by chance, reputation and desperation had been asked to help her struggling, stuttering, stammering husband after the Wembley debacle by Princess Elizabeth.

And that is the crux of the play the growing relationship between future King, painfully aware of tradition, status and protocol – commoner Logue was at first expected to keep five paces away - and an irreverent Australian whose only qualifications were his successes and who didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about status or protocol.

Jason Donovan is a delight as the call a spade a spade Aussie. He is at times brusque, seemingly cruel, but with a purpose, sympathetic and often funny. It is easy to forget that Donovan was an actor before a pop star and has been an actor for many years since, most recently in the Midlands in Annie Get Your Gun and notably Tick in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and here he gives an outstanding performance.

It is matched by Raymond Coulthard as Bertie, invested with a majestic air and looking every inch a king in royal regalia, so aware of his regal station and rules of royalty, that it weighs him down and stifles his entire life.

To watch the two men slowly lose inhibitions and become friends, eventually even laughing and joking is a delight.

The two are very similar, both damaged goods. Logue is a failed actor and we even see his auditions, first as a sort of Antipodean Richard III, then as a deformed and rather hammed up Caliban. Both unsuccessful. Like Bertie he found it hard to ever please his father, while B . . .B . . .Bertie had grown up amid j . . j . . jokes at his stammerng expense.

Beyond the pomp and protocol, etiquette and ceremony are two men would find much in common.

The two have an on-off relationship with Bertie unhappy at first at both Logue’s lack of court etiquette and bizarrking and loguee methods, such as reading Shakespeare aloud while listening to opera on headphones.

With the Simpson crisis growing a mix of fear and panic sees an angry outburst from Bertie who storms out, marking the end of the affair . . . until abdication forces the now King George to seek out Lionel again offering a diet of humble pie. Fear and panic have given way to despair.

Bertie is persuaded to read Shakespeare aloud while listening to music, an exercise he sees as futile . . . at first

It is leading the the climax, The King’s Speech, George VI’s radio address to the nation and the Empire upon the declaration of  war on Germany in 1939.

Despite the fact we have probably heard recordings of the speech in documentaries, and know the outcome, Donovan and Coulthard have succeeded in immersing the audience so deeply in their characters we are willing the King on. You can almost feel a silent audience plea of “Come on my son!” as the King makes a  hesitant start then settles into a stammer-free a confident broadcast. You almost expect cheers at the end.

While Donovan and Coulthard are superb they are not alone. Claire Lams is suitably superior, outwardly at any rate, as Queen Elizabeth, while Katy Stephens is just the opposite as the down to earth wife, Myrtle Logue, who just wants to return home to Perth.

William Hoyland manages to bring Crown and State together single handedly as both the gruff George V and later as Stanley Baldwin. To his credit only the programme would tell you it was the same man.

Martin Turner gives us a rather arrogant pillar of the Establishment in the Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang, who sees not only his role as an unofficial branch of Government but as the would-be leader of the nation in the coming war. He is against Logue, who he discovers is unqualified, despite the fact Logue never claimed he was, and has so little confidence in the new King George he suggests a small, private ceremony, with highlyedited highlights, edited by him of course, released to the media

Nicholas Blane, thankfully not attempting a karaoke version, is somewhat more reassuring as the man who eventually did became leader, Winston Churchill, full of asides and a mix of amusement and derision for the Archbishop.

And, the cause of the crisis? Felicity Houlbrooke had a small role in the play as Wallis Simpson yet her character had a huge role in our history.

Director Roxana Silbert, artistic director of Birmingham Rep, keeps everything moving well, concentrating on the main characters, and she builds a nice rhythm around Tom Piper’s flexible set, a sort of Art Deco arena of giant marquetry, which in style alone echoes the era.

Into that arena furniture appears through multiple doorways to create everything from Westminster Abbey to Logue’s shabby rooms, with the BBC studios a slit appearing halfway up a wall.

Piper, incidentally, was the designer of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London.

Clever lighting from Oliver Fenwick emphasises dramatic scenes and, as war looms, there is clever use of side lighting to throw shadows of Logue’s model war planes on the walls, a subtle touch, while Nick Powell’s additional music and sound design, including the tinny BBC sound of the 1930s,  all adds to the building climax of that final speech. Standing ovations are not handed out lightly at the Rep but you would hardly know it as the audience rose for Donovan and Coulthard, and they deserved it. To 07-02-15

Roger Clarke

26-02-15

 

Speech writer in chief

WRITER David Seidler had developed a stammer before he was three so understood some of the problems faced by Bertie, who was a boyhood hero for overcoming his disability so it was no surprise when he started researching George VI in the 1970s.

There was little information about Logue – the Court and Establishment did not advertise the King’s problem – but Seidler found Logue’s son, Dr Valentine Logue, a retired brain surgeon, who agreed to talk about his father and make his notebooks available – if Queen Elizabeth, by then the Queen Mother, agreed.

She did, but asked that he only did so after her death. So the project was shelved only surfacing again in 2005.

Starting life as a screenplay it was rewritten as a play but it was the film which was made first, winning numerous Oscars and awards. The play, the same story but confined to the stage, concentrates more upon the relationship of the two men who were to become firm friends for 23 years until the King died in 1952, a year before Logue.

Incidentally, during the writing of the script Seidler discovered that his Uncle David had also been a stutterer and had been sent to see Logue by his father, Seidler’s grandfather.

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