Queen for a day – a review of “The Audience”

By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

Since her ascension to the throne in 1952, Queen Elizabeth, II (Allison Cahill) has held weekly meetings with Great Britain’s Prime Ministers from Sir Winston Churchill (Eric Mathews) to Gordon Brown (David Hoffman). Those appointments are depicted in Peter Morgan’s play, “The Audience.”

Think of them as the queen’s dirty dozen. Some of them are dirtier than others.

Historical side note: Theresa May doesn’t make the cut because the play premiered in 2013 at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End, before her tumultuous takeover after Brexit.

There’s not much to say about the story of “The Audience.” There really is no plot, just a series of historical sketches; dramatic encounters between the queen and country. Sometimes the queen reminisces about her earlier life and has conversations with her younger self (an absolutely adorable Madeline Dalesio).

Imagine being a time-traveler dropping out of the time-stream at various points in history and listening in on these important social gatherings without a calendar. One minute you’re eavesdropping on Elizabeth’s cordial visit with Harold Wilson (Joe Eberle) and the next you’re at a pivotal meeting with Anthony Eden (Bracken Burns), who’s Machiavellian back-dealings lead Great Britain into the Suez Canal Crisis.  Watching the play is a little jarring. You are bounced around like Dr. Sam Beckett without Al and Ziggy to tell him where – more importantly – when he is. Another notable time-traveling doctor would diagnose it as “It’s wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”

Some sections of the play drag on, such as the aforementioned fiasco with Eden and the Suez Canal. Other scenes are on fire, particularly the volatile encounter between Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher (Patricia Cena Fuchel). Some scenes are also purely delightful such as the queen’s dealings with Labour Party PM James Harold Wilson – the man of the people.

The scenes with Young Elizabeth give interesting insight into the girl who would be queen. Young Elizabeth is more playful than petulant. She is willfully hoping to avoid wearing the crown, frustrated by her tightly scheduled life, like Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) in “Roman Holiday.” Elizabeth grows up quickly, however, when  the fourteen-year-old princess delivers her speech to the children of the Commonwealth in 1940.

Act I closes on a the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, II in 1953, a solemn and stately affair. Kudos to director Ponny Conomos Jahn, costume designer (and queen) Cahill, technical director Jared Pfennigwerth  and the rest of the production team for infusing the scene the right amount of pomp and circumstance.

(from left to right) Allison Cahill as Queen Elizabeth II and Eric Mathews as the Archbishop – photo by James Orr

The weight of the play falls on the shoulders of the queen. William Shakespeare would remind us that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Cahill carries it with aplomb.  She does a terrific job.

Side note: It’s a glowing account of the queen’s life. While the playwright tries to capture Queen Elizabeth’s complexities, she is portrayed as charming and likable with a hint of mischief. It’s an uneven account of the woman’s life. It mostly sidesteps her bitter rivalry with Diana and never mentions Camilla Parker Bowles by name.

Thatcher, of course, comes off like a badass. She is marvelously rendered by Cena Fuchel in her brief moments on stage. The two women wrestle for power in an energetic and vibrant scene. Thatcher is blustering and bullying as Elizabeth deftly deflects with wit and grace.

Personal aside: Growing up and hanging out with punks in the mid-to-late 80s, it seems completely incongruous to make the demand, “More Margaret Thatcher, please,” but the play really could another heaping helping of the Iron Lady. Cahill and Cena Fuchel are a dynamic duo.

While there is a string of male Prime Ministers that walk in and out of Elizabeth’s long life, there are two more notable performances, Mathews’ Winston Churchill and Eberle’s Harold Wilson. Her relationship with Churchill is contentious, and the tension is palpable.

The scenes with Wilson are thoroughly enjoyable.  The queen seems keen on the intelligent, affable Wilson, deftly played by Eberle.

Queen Elizabeth, II once said, “Good memories are our second chance at happiness.” “The Audience,” while not a cohesive whole, should produce some very good memories.

“The Audience” runs through August 26 at the Little Lake Theater, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. For additional information, please click here.


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