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Michael Coveney: An Audience backstage with Daldry and Mrs Thatcher

By • West End

The nearest a critic or journalist gets to the spotlight - or would want to get - is a backstage interview or an onstage Q and A with the cast and audience after a performance. We're used to that sort of thing at Whatsonstage.com and I've been hanging about theatres for secondary purposes for as long as I've been sitting out front while the show goes on.

But the blood chilled slightly on reading about the walk-on role played by our editor, Theo Bosanquet, the other night at Spamalot in the Playhouse Theatre, a venue where Round the Horne and the Goon Show used to be recorded in the heyday of surreal radio comedy.

Theo stepped out as Sir Not Appearing, by all accounts word-perfect - that's one-word-perfect - and has given an amusing account of his five seconds of fame, the double-edged compliments of his fellow cast members and the loyal thumbs-up of his mum. He's probably waiting for a recall, so we'll all rally round to help him down gently from cloud cuckoo land.

Meanwhile, I turned up for the first morning's rehearsal of The Audience, starring Helen Mirren, at the Dominion Theatre on Monday, but for some reason director Stephen Daldry had neglected to provide me with a script, or a single line, let alone a single word.

And although I said I was available for the wig and costume fitting calls going on all around the huge rehearsal studio on the first floor of the Dominion (the show itself will be at the Gielgud on Shaftesbury Avenue) I was left curiously undisturbed to inspect designer Bob Crowley's beautiful model of the set, a handsome drawing room in Buckingham Palace with receding doorways and gilt chairs.

My business, of course, was entirely peripheral, a quick interview with the delightful Haydn Gwynne, who is bracing herself to play Mrs Thatcher in Peter Morgan's play. Helen Mirren is reprising her film role as the Queen, while Michael Elwyn is playing Anthony Eden, Robert Hardy Sir Winston Churchill and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, Paul Ritter, John Major. 

(A picture of Nicole Kidman on a film set as Grace Kelly in yesterday's newspapers confirms what I think is now happening: actors will soon be required to play only characters who have really existed and, when the supply of historical examples is exhausted, they will merely play other actors.)

I had been asked to report to the Dominion stage-door, which I eventually found by walking half-way along Great Russell Street and interviewing several shop-keepers. The stage-door keeper told me to go back on Tottenham Court Road and enter through the foyer, something I was loath to do as it reminded me of turning up all those years ago for the first night of We Will Rock You.

But daylight had broken and vampires remained abed. And there was Stephen Daldry standing on the pavement, smoking his head off with a couple of jolly stage managers. Ever since his days of running the Gate in Notting Hill, Daldry has been friendly towards the Press, whatever he thinks of us when we're out of earshot.

He brushes off compliments over his masterminding of the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies last year, moans about having forty people for Christmas at his Hertfordshire hideaway who wouldn't go home, and reveals that David Hare is writing a new play. 

Upstairs in the rehearsal room, his regular dialect coach, William Conacher, is drawing up a schedule. Paul Ritter is recounting some hilarious John Major stories (none at Major's expense). Shepherded by redoubtable company manager Howard Jepson, I find Haydn Gwynne downstairs in a large reception room inspecting the cuttings on the wall about the history of the Dominion.

The theatre opened in 1929 and Charlie Chaplin appeared on the stage when his film City Lights was premiered two years later. Judy Garland played four weeks in 1957 (Alan King and Nino the Wonder Dog were on the same bill) and Laurence Olivier appeared as a hologram in Dave Clark's Time (this was the Time that the World forgot).

In 1990, I'd actually forgotten, the place faced demolition but was saved by a vigorous Equity-led campaign and bought by the Broadway impresario James Nederlander, who still owns it.  Disney's first West End show, Beauty and the Beast, opened in 1997. And then came We Will Rock You, co-produced by Robert de Niro.

Gwynne gathers herself on a chair and we begin our little chat, which is easy and interesting. It's clear she has a telepathic relationship, and deep friendship, with Daldry, who directed her as Mrs Wilkinson, the dance teacher, in Billy Elliot both in London and New York, but she hasn't yet decided on how exactly she's going to play Mrs Thatcher.

One thing's for sure: she's not aiming for a caricature, though she admits it would be pointless not taking on all those things we know and remember about the former Prime Minister: her hair, her clothes, her voice, her handbag.

But then, as she says, this play is really about the Queen. And how annoying will that be to Mrs T, despite all the kerfuffle over The Iron Lady movie starring Meryl Streep which staunch Thatcherites decried for being unkind and intrusive?

When I take my leave, Gwynne is off to another recess in the Dominion to be measured. She's tall and lissom, physically taut, as befits a former Sussex county junior tennis player. She's also, like Mrs T, formidably intelligent and articulate; she read sociology at Nottingham University and is fluent in French and Italian.
 
And she's never been asked to play a "real" person before. She must be the first. And she'll have to beef up a bit if she ever hopes to play Angela Merkel or Miriam Margolyes, other characters well within her intellectual and satirical range.

Back on the street, I play myself going to the bus stop and execute a neat little jump aboard the Number 24. I ascend suavely to the upper level without falling over and the other passengers burst out laughing, leaping to their feet as they rush downstairs, leaving me to complete  my solo performance to an empty house as we pass through Camden. 


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