Could ‘The King’s Speech’ work without Colin Firth? Would anything grow on theatrical ground already sprayed by Madonna in her shocking abdication movie ‘W/E’? In the movie I had found Mr Firth’s housewife-pleasing charms somewhat distracting despite his stock-in-trade diffidence, so the stage play is an opportunity to hear the story of the 1937 Abdication crisis and the stammering George VI’s reluctant accession to the throne, and engage with the personalities on a less starry but more intimate level.

In two fine central performances, Charles Edwards as Bertie and Jonathan Hyde as self-taught Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue are extremely capable and experienced actors at the top of their respective games, it’s a pleasure to watch the scenes between them. With the addition of Emma Fielding as a too-nice Princess Elizabeth – more evidence of her manipulative shrewishness would leaven a slightly syrupy script whose production had to be long deferred until after the Queen Mother’s death – this could have been a successful and intense three-hander with more of the background plot shifted offstage. Instead, author David Seidler has opted for a pageant of personalities who are too lightly sketched and occasionally too over-acted to achieve the resonance of, say the Churchillian coterie in ‘Three Days in May’ : but again the acting chops of the participants are undisputed.

Joss Ackland is imposing as a short-tempered George V and brilliantly defies the fact his character was barely five foot six in his uniform boots, Ian MacNeice gives a refreshingly rumpled, not to say Rumpoled, Churchill, but Michael Feast flies way too far over the top as a camp Archbishop of Canterbury that owes more to the Archdeacon in BBC2’s “Rev.” than to Cosmo Gordon Lang who was himself famous for his halting and ponderous speech patterns.

The play has different focuses from the film. Queen Mary doesn’t appear, Mrs Simpson has no spoken lines (although she dances up a storm in the background of Anthony Ward’s over-arched and persistently revolving set) and Edward VIII played admirably by Daniel Betts is sidelined as a childish and selfish playboy. Instead, Logue’s wife Myrtle is foregrounded, pining for her native Australia and bullying him to return home. Charlotte Randle’s a fine actress with great National Theatre credentials and fully captures the character’s disappointment and pride. Unfortunately she has been tempted into a slightly too-broad Australian accent apparently derived from ‘Kath and Kim’: there are moments when you expect her to invite Princess Elizabeth into her ‘lounge-room and dinette’.

Incidentally, that revolve is a problem because it added something like a metre to the elevation of the already-high Richmond stage and patrons from the front six rows of the stalls had to be relocated, deferring the curtain until they were seated. If you have an option, choose a circle seat first.

This is a good production, although director Adrian Noble may need to apply a slightly firmer hand before it reaches the Wyndham’s on March 22nd, but bringing it into town ahead of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations may just guarantee it a loyal and sympathetic audience eager to hear her father’s story told so well.

Runs until 10th March 2012

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.