Peter Morgan’s play about the Queen’s weekly off-the-record meetings with various prime ministers during her reign was first staged in 2013. David Cameron was in his first term and Britain was firmly inside the EU. Two years later, Downing Street’s political dramas had moved on and Morgan made sure a West End revival did, too, by writing a pending election into the script, with later updates and additions including Cameron’s second term in office.
In his revival, director Samuel Hodges responds to the subsequent gain – and loss – of another PM as well as the nation’s split from Europe. The updates this time are built into the production rather than the script and feel fairly cosmetic. The highlight is a visual pun of a beleaguered Theresa May stumbling to gain a toe-hold on power. Beyond this comic moment, the references to May and Brexit are fleeting and underpowered.
What resonates deeper is the play’s reflection on Britain’s view of itself, its inner turmoils and its relationship to Europe. John Major speaks pointedly of a “belligerent anti-European caucus” and Harold Wilson before him says that “the Churchillian dream of our place in the world is over” suggesting that the nation is in denial of the fact.
Rosanna Vize’s abstract set has a conveyor belt that brings the PMs on to the stage and a small square of carpet serves as the first-floor meeting room in Buckingham Palace. Some components are hidden under dust-sheets, which are removed to reveal a room in another time frame, with a younger Elizabeth. It is clever although it sometimes strains too hard, especially in the Queen’s on-stage costume changes, which are accompanied by mannered dance movements.
All but one of the PMs are played by Paul Kemp, a versatile actor who pulls off Churchill and Wilson with heart and soul. A few enactments feel like Dead Ringers impersonations, including Tony Blair who appears briefly but is instantly, risibly, recognisable. The point that all the PMs who travel the conveyor belt represent the same desire for power, whatever their party politics, is slightly lost.
The best performance comes from Lizzie Hopley’s Margaret Thatcher, who embodies a contained but deadly aggression. She and the Queen stalk each other in a predatory dance and one wishes for more such confrontations in the script.
The Queen is a likable figure who Morgan makes it hard for us to judge harshly though she is both unassuming (“I’m a postage stamp with a pulse”) and arrogant, speaking of herself as a divinely ordained authority when Major challenges her on her finances. Faye Castelow’s Queen is more in the mould of Claire Foy (from Morgan’s The Crown) than Helen Mirren (from the original play and Morgan’s film, The Queen). Ultimately, we gain a keener sense of the PMs – some self-serving, others overcome by the sense of failure that leadership brings them – than we do of her.
• At NST City, Southampton, until 22 June.