Helen Mirren is currently ravishing Broadway as she reprises the role of the Queen she has previously played on the big screen (to Oscar winning glory in Stephen Frears's film The Queen in 2006) and the West End stage (in 2013, where she won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress, and for which she is now Tony nominated on Broadway).
It's a role she clearly owns, so she was obviously always going to be a tough act to follow. But now one stage actor turned movie star is succeeded by a movie star turned stage actor, and the differences are instructive. Although Kristin Scott Thomas has certainly earned her dues on the London stage in the last few years, most recently in Electra at the Old Vic and before that in Pinter and Chekhov, so she's not quite a novelty turn anymore, she wears her icy glamour like a cloak; where Mirren radiates an inner warmth, it doesn't come naturally to Thomas who feels like she is play-acting it.
The play requires a lot of carefully suppressed 'reaction shots', but Thomas can't quite pull them off convincingly. Dame Kristin puts a bit of the panto dame into this Queen. (She was also not in full command of her lines at the performance I was invited to see).
Yet the play around her is so strong that it doesn't entirely matter. A woman who at one point calls herself "a postage stamp with a pulse" is revealed to be confessor and conscience of a succession of Prime Ministers — there have been 12 so far across her reign from Churchill to Cameron with an election this week that may produce a 13th — in this fictionalised but rigorously researched account of the weekly private meetings that the monarch has with the PM.
Playwright Peter Morgan uses public events at the time to imagine what was being said behind-the-scenes; the result is a partly reverential, partly irreverent, but never irrelevant history lesson, in which the Queen's essential humanity and humility, and most of all a sense of duty that was instilled as a child, comes shining through.
A terrific supporting cast bring eight Prime Ministers to brilliant life, especially Nicholas Woodson's Harold Wilson, David Calder's Churchill, Gordon Kennedy's Gordon Brown and Mark Dexter who, in a mischievous bit of double casting, plays both David Cameron and Tony Blair. One disappointment is Slyvestra Le Touzel's Margaret Thatcher; the Iron Lady has been subject to her own film (Meryl Streep) and multiple stage incarnations before, including most recently a drag turn in a play called The Dead Sheep at North London's Park Theatre by Steve Nallon (who also voiced her Spitting Image puppet) that was much more convincing.
But this is nonetheless a clever, witty play, masterfully directed by Stephen Daldry (who also directed the film The Queen), and gorgeously designed by Bob Crowley to reflect both the splendour of Buckingham Palace and the scenic grandeur of Balmoral.
"... this revamped version of Peter Morgan’s enthralling and royally entertaining (albeit at times too flippantly light-hearted) play about the weekly briefing meetings that take place between the Queen and her Prime Minister could hardly be more up-to-date. "
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Scott Thomas is certainly regal: elegant, refined, chin lifted and nose looked down."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"Scott Thomas is excellent when the play gives her a chance to break protocol and argue with her prime ministers. I was less persuaded by the moments when we see the Queen’s vulnerability or capacity to cheer up her nerve-wracked ministers."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is such a great play, it is hard to imagine any Queen bombing entirely – just as the part of Maria in ‘The Sound of Music’ is bomb-proof. The Audience would do perfectly well without Dame Kristin. I bet her understudy is more than adequate. Do come and visit me in the Tower."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Brisk costume changes enable Scott Thomas to move swiftly between regimes. The transformations feel almost magical, and while the play may not illuminate the intricacies of either politics or the Royal Family, it’s an entertaining, ultimately touching portrait of a woman whose life has been a strange mixture of visibility and aloofness."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard