Janet Ulrich Brooks stars in TimeLine Theatre Company’s Elizabethan character study.
For the last 65 years, Queen Elizabeth II has devoted 20 minutes a week to receiving the current prime minister, being briefed on the political developments of the week and bestowing her approval on whatever decisions her head of government has made. The Audience, now playing at TimeLine Theatre Company, positions its own audience as flies on the cloistered walls of Buckingham Palace's Private Audience Room, where they witness the fictionalized conversations between the real leaders that have occupied it.
Playwright-screenwriter Peter Morgan has explored the life of Queen Elizabeth II before — first in his 2006 film The Queen, which focused on the royal reaction to the death of Princess Diana, and last year with the debut of his Netflix series The Crown, which depicted Elizabeth as a young woman at the beginning of her reign. The Audience spans these time periods and extends beyond them, jumping anachronistically from the 1990s to the 1950s, eventually moving into very nearly present day scenes with David Cameron (Mark Ulrich). The vignettes, strung together with narration from the queen's equerry (David Lively), come together to create a character study of the queen (Janet Ulrich Brooks) from ages 25 to 86.
Playing anybody aging through six decades onstage is demanding, and The Audience adds the additional challenge of portraying a woman who is as iconic and publicly known as anybody alive. Brooks rises to the task with grace and skill, using precise variations in her voice and posture to move between decades, aided by the decisive period shifts in costuming, designed by Theresa Ham.
Brooks is supported by similarly versatile performances from two actors playing seven prime ministers, instead of the expected deep bench of character actors. The rubber-faced Mark Ulrich finds specific mannerisms to differentiate between Anthony Eden, John Major, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron. Matt DeCaro is imposing as Winston Churchill, breezily confident as Tony Blair, and warm and wry as Labour leader Harold Wilson, whose scenes with Queen Elizabeth are the play's best. While Carmen Roman plays only one PM, her Margaret Thatcher is appropriately hard-nosed and aggressive, leading to a heated scene in Act 2.
Director Nick Bowling has set The Audience in the round, on Jeffrey Kmiec's striking white-on-white set that serves as both Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle, the queen's holiday home. Though the play is primarily a series of meetings, the staging is never static. Dream-like transitions feature Audrey Edwards as Young Elizabeth (Edwards will alternate performances with Sophie Ackerman), reminding the queen of the girl she was before ascending to the throne.
The heart of The Audience, though, is in exploring the relationship between monarch and statesmen. The scenes between Queen Elizabeth and her younger self are sweet, but in these introspective moments, the play loses its way and veers too far into sentimentality. Outside of these scenes, though,and in the capable hands of its director and leading lady, The Audience offers an engrossing glimpse into the mind and heart of the world's longest-reigning monarch.