There is nothing more reliable in theatre than a royal. From the pomp and ceremony to the behind- the-scenes plotting, there is plenty to be mined from these larger than life figures.
Queen Elizabeth II may not be on the same level as, say, Henry V or Hamlet, but after more than 60 years on the throne, there is plenty of dramatic material waiting to be mined.
Peter Morgan's The Audience, making its New Zealand debut via the Auckland Theatre Company, has chosen a unique lens to examine her reign. Using the weekly meetings the Queen has had with her various Prime Ministers as a backdrop, Morgan explores more than half a century of British and global politics, questioning the stability and motivations of those in power all through the eyes of a woman with little choice in the matter.
Theresa Healey plays the Queen and, as the loosely connected plot bounds between decades and Prime Ministers, Healey's sparkling performance is the one thing holding it together. She is seamless in her transformation between young and old, inexperience and wisdom.
Morgan has written the Queen as a matronly figure restrained by convention, restricted to doling out advice and swallowing dead rats. Healey finds a sweet balance between protocol and patriot, serene when needed and fiery when pushed.
She cuts as a believable figure and most of the supporting players - those portraying various Prime Ministers - meet the challenge she lays down. Harold Wilson is the only PM given the chance to develop a character; Cameron Rhodes flourishes in a performance that begins quirkily and descends movingly into heartbreak.
The other appearances are much briefer but are no less engaging. Ian Mune is commanding in a fleeting cameo as Winston Churchill while Hera Dunleavy gives a solid and captivating take as Margaret Thatcher. Both leave you wanting more and make up for Mark Wright's meanderingly accented Gordon Brown or Adam Gardiner's frustratingly fidgety David Cameron.
These performances are shaped by both script and the real-life figures they are impersonating, leaving little room for error. They strike me as being of a similar calibre to the West End original, which I saw thanks to National Theatre Live's global cinematic broadcasts.
Where the two works differ markedly is the creative decisions. Then, the set was understated and simple; Helen Mirren's costumes were changed on stage to prevent breaking the flow. It felt classy and professional and had a lasting impact.
Here, the set is dominated by the two looming paintings that restrict the action; there's a baffling lightning decision at the end of Act One that sees part of the audience blinded and forced to look away. Then there are continuous awkward pauses where Healey disappears off stage to change costumes whilst she is meant to be conversing with her younger self.
All those matters may go unnoticed by casual theatregoers and those unfamiliar with The Audience, who are likely to enjoy the speculative script firmed up by fine performances. Yet those in the know, or who expect more from our premier theatre company, will question why such amateurish decisions were allowed to hinder what should have been a truly regal success.
What: The Audience
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until Thursday May 23
Reviewed by Ethan Sills