When I first heard that 2010 Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech had been adapted into a play, I had a hunch it would work well: the relationship between George VI and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, develops fully as the primary focus in a plot with no unnecessary frills. It helps that there are few other characters, and there are nice nods to the theatre through audition scenes and Shakespearean speeches. And as it turns out, my hunch was right.
The King’s Speech is an excellent production, with strong central performances from Jason Donovan as Logue and Raymond Coulthard as the troubled king. Donovan embraces the comic elements of Logue’s character, being brash without ever becoming unlikeable. Coulthard – who, for a Jane Austen nerd like me, will be forever associated with the dashing Frank Churchill in a 1990s TV adaptation of Emma – succeeds in the difficult task of convincingly portraying a speech disorder, clenching his hands into fists when the stress of speaking overcomes him. This vulnerability is masked by haughtiness, reserve and a lifetime of protocol – Coulthard looks (and sounds) as if he was born royal. The infamous scenes in which he issues streams of expletives and dances round the room in order to overcome his stutter are very funny.
The third star of this production, for me, is the set. A high, curved wall of wooden panelling provides the backdrop for the entire piece, with panels opening to create doorways, reveal royal portraits, form radio studios and expose stained-glass windows. Its versatility allows for some exceptionally fast set changes – scenes run into each other with filmic speed, preventing any potential boredom setting in. There’s lots of historical context squeezed in, courtesy of scenes between Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lionel’s relationship with his wife, Myrtle, also plays a bigger role here than in the film. The entire cast is surprisingly small, but the production does well to mask this in scenes that require crowds – George’s disastrous public speech at Wembley is preceded by actors crisscrossing the stage repeatedly, made anonymous by their black umbrellas. The illusion of a multitiude of guests in the house party scene is created with music, sound effects and by actors dancing, scurrying and drunkenly lurching repeatedly across the stage.
A particular highlight for me is the opening of the piece. George appears on stage in his underwear, instantly vulnerable to the eyes of an audience. He then waits with an air of resigned but practiced boredom as servants whirl about, dressing him and bringing him tea. He emerges in full state regalia, visually impressive but every bit as vulnerable as before. His concluding speech, a radio broadcast to the whole country, is an intensely dramatic moment and the fact that the audience applauds at the end proves what a compelling production this is. Even the coughing, fidgeting, rustling sweet wrappers and ringing phones of the surrounding audience couldn’t spoil it for me – and that’s saying something.
The King’s Speech is on at Manchester Opera House until Saturday. Get there if you can!