Let me get this out there from the off: I am a huge Jason Donovan fan. Since his days in Neighbours, I have followed this man’s career and grown from just a screaming, hysterical fangirl into someone who respects and admires a humble and deeply talented man. I am still a screaming fangirl though, that will never change.
I was intrigued to see Donovan as Lionel Logue, speech therapist to “Bertie” Windsor. He had big shoes to fill after the supremely talented Geoffrey Rush made the part his own in the film version. Yes, I know it’s two different genres but let’s face it, I was not the only one in the audience of the Oxford Playhouse making comparisons.
Donovan has, for the most part, stuck with musical theatre since taking the lead in Joseph back in the 90’s and in doing so has formed a very admirable career. What a joy, though, to see him in this role. He doesn’t fill Rush’s shoes, he creates his own character, delivers it in his own way and by God, the man can act. Bias? Maybe, but I heard it echoed again and again both in the interval and as we were leaving the theatre. Without a doubt, this is the strongest performance of his career so far.
Raymond Coulthard as the eventual King George VI gives some impressive moments, not least the speech he delivers in the final scene. His struggle will move you to tears. He gives strong characterisation and is a great reluctant monarch though I would have liked a more pronounced speech impediment from him at times. Occasionally his lines flowed a little too well.
My main problem with the production comes from the supporting cast and the fact that I just don’t think The King’s Speech works well as a stage play. Apart from Donovan and Coulthard, the rest of the cast were not all that strong and at times (yes, Winston Churchill), intensely annoying to have on the stage. Katy Stephens as Myrtle Logue and Claire Lams as Queen Elizabeth were fair, but Lams often seemed too harsh in her delivery.
It’s interesting to note that The King’s Speech started out as a stage play, because the film is a dream and if I hadn’t known that fact before watching the show, I would have assumed they were trying to shoehorn the film to fit the stage.
There are impressive things about the production, such as the wooden set design, the extremely clever scene changes and elements of the direction are great. Overall, however, as soon as anyone other than the two central characters are on the stage, it just doesn’t grab you.
In a sharp contrast, the scenes which are just Donovan and Coulthard are sensational, an absolute joy. In the second half especially, the two share a phenomenal rapport. Here are two actors who know their characters inside out and, what is more, they know exactly how their relationship should be played. Subtle changes as the play progresses, such as Bertie demanding Logue remain five paces away at all times and then gradually forgetting that until he is angered, and their giggling like naughty schoolboys at the frosty relationship between their wives, all conspire to make the audience feel privileged to watch this relationship progressing.
There is great line delivery too. Lines such as “I don’t stutter when I’m with you,” are delivered so subtly and understated from Coulthard that the meaning of that suddenly hits you like a freight truck but, of course, Bertie has moved on, far too embarrassed at what he has just disclosed. More perfect delivery comes from both actors as they practise Bertie’s Coronation speech, by dancing together.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I cried. Donovan and Coulthard are both total revelations and honestly, I would have been happy watching the entire story played out just as a two-hander. They are far and away the highlights of an otherwise good, but not exceptional play.
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