Weekly, the Queen meets with the Prime Minister for a private audience. The meeting is not minuted and not witnessed by anyone else. It is a private conversation and a convention the Queen has kept to for the entire length of her reign - a reign that has so far seen 13 Prime Ministers.
This play from Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry reimagines these private meetings, using them to not only entertain but to consider the role of the monarchy itself, and the challenges of reigning without ever ruling.
The play initially opened back in 2013 with Helen Mirren as the Queen. It was very popular then too and it remains pleasant and engaging but almost nothing has changed from this production, in style or content, other than the casting.
The costumes are the same, as are the impressive quick-fire on-stage costume changes that cause ripples of admiration across the auditorium. The set is much the same. Even the stage directions are identical. But whereas this show has not moved on, theatre and politics have. As a result, The Audience felt at times quite tired, as if it's is a show stuck in time.
Since the previous run in the West End, we've had other plays that have examined this subject matter of the delicate position the constitutional monarchy plays in our political lives. And both have arguably done it better. King Charles III went at the issue all hammer and tongs, whereas the glorious Handbagged, though a comedy, put the tricky power plays between Thatcher and the Queen under the microscope.
Helen Mirren is now on Broadway in this very show and her place in the West End has been taken by Kristin Scott Thomas. A fine actress yet for those of us who saw Helen Mirren it's impossible for us not to draw comparisons.
Kristin Scott Thomas brings out all the internal conflict of a woman who has committed herself to the service of her country, though that relationship can feel very one-sided at times. And obviously she has all the grace and elegance necessary. But the piece lacks Helen Mirren's spirited approach to the role. She had that twinkle in her eye, capturing the Queen's reputedly wicked humour. In comparison, KST is quite stern and distant.
Writer Peter Morgan though has made a few changes to the script to bring it up to date. I went to see the show on Friday May 8th, the first performance after the General Election and the cast had quickly learned a few new lines.
In her audience with David Cameron (superbly played by Mark Dexter who also played Cameron in the recent TV drama Coalition), the lines were changed to have an enthusiastic, beaming Cameron tell the Queen that he has a working majority. It was an admirable and perfectly executed last minute addition but the spontaneous cheers and applause from the clearly partisan audience that greeted Dave's declaration of victory chilled me to my core.
A sore reminder of my political bias, yes, but also a reminder that I am probably not the target audience for this show. If you like your theatre warm and supportive of the traditional institutions then you'll probably enjoy this show immensely. However if, like me, you prefer your theatre more risky, more challenging, then this show probably isn't for you either.
Apollo Theatre, London to July 25, 2015
1. The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) with Prime Ministers in The Audience Photo credit Johan Persson
2. The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Winston Churchill (David Calder) in The Audience Photo by Johan Persson
3. The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Harold Wilson (Nicholas Woodeson) in The Audience Photo by Johan Persson
4. The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience Photo by Johan Persson