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‘King’s Speech’ Goes Live: London Stage

March 29, 2012

Charles Edwards and Emma Fielding in ``The King’s Speech’’ at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. The duke reveals that he does not stammer when with his wife. Photographer: Manuel Harlan/Cornershop PR via Bloomberg

Charles Edwards and Emma Fielding in ``The King’s Speech’’ at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. The duke reveals that he does not stammer when with his wife. Photographer: Manuel Harlan/Cornershop PR via Bloomberg

A man faces up to a crippling disability. A friendship is tested. The fate of nations hangs on difficult personal choices. “The King’s Speech” has everything required for a great play, except a script.

With little bitty scenes tumbling over each other, it’s clear that David Seidler’s screenplay hasn’t made a smooth transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre in London.

When the character Myrtle Logue first appears she’s like an express train hurtling through a station. A few lines of dialogue and then off. Blink and you miss her.

It’s even odder because Myrtle’s part is ultimately the one most expanded from the film. She’s the wife of unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. In 1930s London, he’s hired by the Duke of York (the future King George VI) to cure his debilitating stammer.

After initial frostiness, the therapy is slowly successful and the men become friends. The homesick Myrtle (Charlotte Randle), meanwhile, begs her husband to return to Australia, and forces him to choose between family and work.

Seidler has said that although he originally wrote the work as a screenplay, he already had adapted it into a stage play before it was made into a movie. After out-of-town trials, this is the theater version’s world premiere.

A few more trials wouldn’t have hurt. It’s only when the two main protagonists really begin to spar with each other in a properly developed scene that it begins to feel like an authentic stage vehicle.

Colonial Comedy

Charles Edwards (the Duke) and Jonathan Hyde (Logue) are excellent, and relish playing the comedy of a stiff Briton meeting a brash colonial without lapsing into caricature.

After a shaky start, things look promising by the end of Act 1. Sadly, Act 2 takes that promise and throws it away.

The scenes get shorter again. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Michael Feast) is portrayed as a mincing diva, with zero power to generate conflict. The Duke’s brother David (the future King Edward VIII) is reduced to a vaudeville villain. Every so often Winston Churchill trundles on and off.

Director Adrian Noble uses little chunks of music as cinematic underscore to link the bits of dialogue. One of them is Elgar’s “Nimrod,” famous for its stirring climax. It’s faded out at just the wrong moment. Ker-thud.

Designer Anthony Ward employs a huge panel that revolves to create a sense of separation between scenes. Sometimes it whizzes around so frequently it almost spins away, like a propeller. Perhaps that’s the kindest thing that could happen. Rating: *1/2.

Mannered Gore

After its recent smash hit with “Noises Off” (now transferred to the Novello Theatre), the Old Vic steps down a notch with a worthy, solid and slightly dull production of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” (1613).

The plot is a tale of revenge. A noble duchess, having married her lowly steward, is imprisoned, hounded and executed by her rapacious brothers, one of whom is her twin. Bosola, the malcontent hired to commit the murder, realizes what a terrible deed he has done, and turns on his former employers.

Director Jamie Lloyd has tried to create a crowd-pleasing period-costume production without, it seems, knowing what crowd he wants to please. Fans of Jacobean gore will find his staging too polite.

Bitter Anger

Admirers of early 17th-century dramatic prose will find some of the delivery too mannered. Mark Bonnar (Bosola), employing a thick Scottish accent, sounds every consonant and plosive in an exaggerated fashion. His decision to highlight his character’s anger and bitterness right at the beginning is limiting too: There’s nothing left for him to do.

Eve Best (Duchess), on the other hand, commands every one of her scenes. At first playful and skittish, she grows in stature and depth. Her nobility in the face of death is both moving and liberating. It’s a powerhouse performance.

In an odd bit of casting, her unhinged twin Ferdinand is played by Harry Lloyd, an actor who looks about 10 years younger than she does. He turns in an enjoyable performance.

It looks sumptuous on Soutra Gilmour’s clever set, which offers three tiers of balconies and walkways made from gilded ironwork. There are plenty of places to hide, observe or spy. Dry ice, murky lighting and clouds of incense add atmosphere, and the Duchess’s 17th-century costumes are a delight.

This is a respectable staging, with nothing to frighten the horses, though a bit of horse-scaring might not have gone amiss. Rating **.

“The King’s Speech” is at the Wyndham’s Theatre. Information: http://www.kingsspeechtheplay.com/ and http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5136.

“The Duchess of Malfi” is at the Old Vic, whose season sponsor is Bank of America Merrill Lynch, http://www.oldvictheatre.com or +44-844-871-7628.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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