Lowdown
What: The Audience
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, May 8-23

It looks as if the Queen is taking tea, delicately trying to bite into a cheese and chive scone without getting crumbs stuck to her lips, which sport a rather daring shade of red to set off a cobalt blue dress and three strands of pearls.

Except this is the boardroom at Auckland Theatre Company and, while it's perfectly functional, it's not exactly regal. Certainly not enough for Queen Elizabeth who, when she turns around to ask what we think of the lippy, turns out to be actress Theresa Healey.

Best known for television roles in the likes of Go Girls, Mercy Peak and, in its heyday, Shortland Street, Healey is now taking on the theatre role of a lifetime. She plays Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience, a play written by Peter Morgan who had Dame Helen Mirren playing HRH in the English premiere production and, partly due to its success, went on to create the Netflix series The Crown.

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If Healey is daunted about playing one of the most iconic women of our time, across 50 years of her life, she's not letting on. "When you get asked to play the Queen, well, it probably won't happen again, so it's good to say yes," she says.

It means perfecting some skills other than learning and delivering pitch perfect lines. Healey, who first appears as Elizabeth aged 25, will have to become mistress of the "quick change", given that there are 11 times she needs to undress and re-dress throughout the two-and-a-half hour (including interval) production.

It follows Elizabeth through five decades of private weekly meetings with British prime ministers from Winston Churchill (played by Ian Mune) to David Cameron (Adam Gardiner, who's also portraying Tony Blair and Cecil Beaton). Roy Ward, Cameron Rhodes and Mark Wright also play British MPs; Hera Dunleavy appears as Margaret Thatcher.

There are a lot of wigs, including three for Healey. Lined up on their mannequin heads on the boardroom table, you almost expect them to be turned around to reveal Her Majesty's face - but we don't behead royalty any more.

Theresa Healey as we're more used to seeing her. Photo/Doug Sherring
Theresa Healey as we're more used to seeing her. Photo/Doug Sherring

Again, Healey is taking it all in her stride – she's been practising good posture but becoming more curved and stooped as the Queen ages – and has an excellent hair and makeup team around her, led by Abi Taylor.

It will take Taylor about 30 minutes getting Healey made up and she'll be backstage for every production, assisted by a dresser or two to help Healey into the various costumes. Taylor's just finished working on Disney's Aladdin – the musical where she had just 19 seconds to do one full change. How does one change a performer so quickly?

"Ah, that's the magic of the performing arts," she says, returning to tucking Healey's pixie-cut grey hair into a skull cap to fit under the first wig.

The Audience isn't strictly chronological; we see Elizabeth as an older monarch but then flashback to her younger years. That'll impact on the hair and makeup but perhaps not as markedly as it could have done.

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"She wore red lipstick when she was a younger woman then toned it down a bit but has now gone back to red, maybe because she's older and has decided to be bold …"

Along with set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord, Taylor spent weeks poring over pictures of Queen Elizabeth to perfect the right look. Having looked at a multitude of documentaries and historic photos of the royal family, they've quite clearly seen that unlike pop stars who seem to change their look with every award ceremony, Queen Elizabeth has stuck resolutely to a tried and true template.

Actor Theresa Healey is transformed into Queen Elizabeth II for upcoming play The Audience. Photo/Doug Sherring
Actor Theresa Healey is transformed into Queen Elizabeth II for upcoming play The Audience. Photo/Doug Sherring

Impeccably tailored and conservative dresses, three strands of pearls, a diamond brooch, discreet earrings, sensible shoes and, of course, the handbag.

"I think she decided that if it ain't broke, it didn't need fixing," says Taylor.

All the costumes were made for Healey, with Grant Lord saying that the look is so high-end it was easier to tailor-make them rather than alter existing clothes in wardrobe and the Queen's distinct style has impacted on how Healey rehearses.

"I found I couldn't rehearse the Queen wearing jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers; I needed an outfit."