KING'S SPEECH STUTTERS ON STAGE

~ Posted by Simon Willis, March 29th 2012

There aren't many plays that work better as movies, but perhaps "The King's Speech" is one of them. David Seidler wrote the story for the stage and then it found fame—and a hatful of Oscars—as a movie. All this happened by chance. The film's British director, Tom Hooper, has explained how his mother, who is Australian, was invited by friends to a rehearsed reading at a small theatre in north London of an unproduced play about an Australian speech therapist and the King. Afterwards she rang her son and told him she had found his next project.

This week the stage version received its premiere in London, directed by Adrian Noble, the one-time head of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Even as a movie, it had felt quite stagey: the most important scenes take place in a single room, where George VI, aka Bertie, is treated for his stammer by his unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. This was a good old-fashioned two-hander. Psychologically, it felt theatrical too: here was a piece about a man constricted by power he doesn't want and a disability he cannot shake.

And yet seeing it last night at the Wyndham's, I still felt that I wanted the focus to be even narrower. This was no fault of the actors. Where Geoffrey Rush's Logue had an edge of eccentricity, Jonathan Hyde's is dry, hollowed out, much more the insecure colonial. And Charles Edwards' Bertie is gawkier than Colin Firth's, wearing a crown but emotionally still in shorts. Anyone who's seen the movie will remember how certain lines are said, but Edwards and Hyde make each line their own.

What doesn't work so well in the stage version is the other stuff. Lionel Logue's wife Myrtle was in the background on screen. Here she is given more weight, but the writing isn't rich enough to maintain our interest. We hear her as a homesick wife, out of place in England, but we never get close enough to her to care. We get a little more of the politics too, as Churchill and Baldwin navigate their way through the abdication crisis in 1938. But this Churchill, played by Ian McNeice, never moves beyond cliché to become a real character. To my surprise, the stage version had more short, bitty scenes, which instead of intensifying what works best on stage, dissipate it. Commercially, no doubt, the play's a shoo-in for the Diamond Jubilee, but you'd be better off rewatching the DVD.

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life