With a set which looks like the result of a cost-cutting trip to B&Q, filled initially at least only with a future king in his underpants, The King’s Speech doesn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts.
But sterling performances from Jason Donovan as maverick Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue and Raymond Coulthard as King George VI are the heart of a highly-satisfying evening which grows and grows impressively.
A measure of Donovan’s performance is that you have to remind yourself it’s Jason you are looking at. He captures Logue’s total lack of convention and total lack of knowledge of the rules we Brits play by, but he also adds kindness to the portrayal.
Coulthard is similarly striking, giving Prince Bertie, as he was at the time, genuine dignity (though you can’t help wondering whether Edward VIII really was as utterly appalling as he is portrayed here). If there’s a problem with Coulthard’s performance, it’s that he really doesn’t seem to be stammering enough. After all, without the stammer, there really isn’t much of a story, and there are long passages where the stammer disappears – and not simply because of Logue.
But it all comes together strongly against its poor-man’s wood-cladded set, a constant reminder of the far richer pleasures to be had from simply returning to the film with all its lavish detail, superb costumes and greater impact.
Of course, it’s really not comparing like with like, but just the fact of the production makes comparison inevitable or at least irresistible.
The film did brilliantly all that film can do; there is not quite the same feeling that the play is doing brilliantly all that theatre can do. The film was outstanding, a real cinema landmark; the play – and it really doesn’t matter in which order the two were written – is simply a very good play, which would probably be enough if there wasn’t a truly-remarkable film lurking in memory.
Maybe that’s the reasoning behind the spartan set: a refusal to compete in an area where inevitably the film will wipe the floor with the play. But ultimately, the play, while impressive on its own merits, doesn’t put up much of an argument that it’s as a play that we need to be appreciating this story. In the end, it comes with just too much baggage in its wake.