In the long (looooong) history of the British monarchy (so long), George VI learning to manage and minimize his speech impediment is not, shall we say, a top-line incident. Somewhere between the Magna Carta and Harry & Meghan uprooting to Canada, a king conquered his stutter — NBD, right?
While the play The King’s Speech — and, of course, the 2010 film upon which it is based — treat “Bertie’s” stammer as a crisis that may topple a civilization, both have their better moments in smaller-stakes hinges. Achieving more modest faiths in one’s self, facing up to slighter duties and truths.
Going on now until Sunday at the National Theatre, The King’s Speech is a crowd-pleaser with a welcome sense of scale. Directed by Michael Wilson and adapted by David Seidler from his own screenplay, it knows what is expected of it, and it delivers. Nick Westrate’s king-in-waiting and Michael Bakkensen’s Australian speech therapist have outstanding chemistry, Maggie Lacey gives great stiff upper lip as a quintessential royal spouse, and Kevin Gudahl has a jolly good time because why wouldn’t he? He gets to play Winston Churchill. For fans of The Crown, this might be essential viewing, but for the rest of us, it’s an admirable night at the theatre.
You’ve seen the movie, of course? Very late-era Weinstein Company with that signature “see it everywhere on Christmas Day” blend of period costumes and Colin Firth yelling curse words. It was one of several Fine But Not Amazing best picture Oscar-winners in the last decade or so, and the stage version does jettison some of the flotsam. No more Bertie stammering through good-night stories to his daughters, no more rising Beethoven’s 7th played behind the climatic radio address. You’re welcome.
The performances are to be commended, but shame on me if I don’t mention the designers. Kevin Depinet’s deceptively simple and tastefully asymmetrical set reveals surprising flexibility with the help of Howell Binkley’s warm-then-cold lights and Hana S. Kim’s meticulous projections. Sound and music by John Gromada and costumes from David C. Woolard are so good, you only notice them when you’re admiring them. And one can only imagine the work put in by dialect coach Kate DeVore.
As is sometimes the case with plays adapted from movies, there are, particularly at first, too many extra-short scenes, too much time spent moving furniture around for brief interchanges. That problem comes to a dead halt when Bakkensen and Westrate have their first session, the longest scene in the show up to that point. The two actor size up, square off, and, like their characters, get down to what must be done. It’s here, you see, with the thrones and looming wars safely off stage, that the story really takes place.
Feature photo by Liz Lauren.